Lucifer, Match Safes, Strikers and Boxes

These two boxes from past QBO sales are wall-mounted Match Safes. They kept matches close at hand in the days of woodstoves. Early gas stoves had pilot lights to ignite their burners but sometimes needed help so match safes in kitchens persisted. The black safe is cast iron and could be antique or reproduction, while the sunny yellow tin one was made sometime in the 1940s – 1970s. The cast iron safe has scored sides for striking the match on, while the yellow one has a slot through which the striker surface on the inserted box of matches is reached. 

This adorable German-made crow looks like a toothpick holder, but the striker-pattern on his tail gives him away. The “Scratch My Back” kitty can’t actually hold matches, but the rough grit she’s composed of makes her a handy striker for lucifers, which is what the first matches were called. Yes, matches were originally called after the fallen angel whose name means “Bringer of Light”. And, if you follow the history of matches, the devilish name seems unfortunately apt.

So what did Lucifer get up to? In 1680, the first match with a head of sulfur and phosphorous was made. Hell is said to be composed of burning sulfur, and the name phosphorous is Greek for ‘light bearing’ but this first match was not effective enough to take off. Then in 1826 an apothecary trying to create explosives accidentally let his stir-stick dry with formula caked on it and when he scraped it on the floor… FIRE! 

By 1829 lucifers were being made commercially. They kicked off a great increase in smoking, followed by lung cancer. But that’s not all. In 1830 the formula changed to include WHITE phosphorous, a deadly poison and thus lucifers became handy for those bent on surreptitiously murdering people. And in match factories, workers got Phossy Lung (respiratory disease), Phossy Marrow (anemia) Phossy Brain (seizures) and most horrific, Phossy Jaw (bone necrosis) which required amputating the entire jaw. 11% of match factory workers got it; women and girls as young as 8. In 1852 an outraged Charles Dickens wrote an exposé on the appalling work conditions, but nothing changed. It wasn’t until 1888 that these poverty-wage workers staged the Match Girl Strike and while factory conditions improved, match formulation did not. Match Girls died of Phossy Jaw until 1894, when white phosphorus was finally replaced with less toxic phosphorus sesquisulfide. So yes, it’s not hard to imagine Lucifer himself stirring the pot there.

“Safety Matches” on boxes like these from our last Beehive sale originally meant the less toxic matches but was later applied to “Strike on Box” matches. The original lucifers were “Strike Anywhere”: all the chemicals needed to produce the incendiary reaction are together on the head, you need only run it over a rough surface to light. You can use a rock, the zipper fly on your jeans, or the bottom of your boot, cowboy-style. Safety Matches separate the chemicals necessary for ignition into two: 1/2 on the match head, 1/2 on the striker surface on the side of the box or bottom of the match book. They cannot be lit by friction alone, preventing accidents. Today the Strike Anywhere matches needed to work in some of these vintage match safes have become scarce, if not completely unobtainable. They’re outlawed in 7 states (not Oregon) and the U.S.P.S. doesn’t want to ship them, so every major U.S. match maker quietly stopped producing them around 2020. There are a few still sold as “Cowboy Matches” so you might find them in camping stores. Or not. Oh, well. Enjoy these adorable meeces in their matchbox bed!