The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Matchbox collection. Source:
Soviet-era matchbook labels. 

A few weeks ago while Pinning, I stumbled upon a visually impressive board of matchbook art and, in the process, discovered the world of phillumeny: the collecting of match-related items, including matchboxes, matchbox labels, matchbooks, match covers and match safes.

Sounds obscure? One might think so, but I was surprised to find out that the hobby has a devoted and global following. 

Pinterest enthusiasts have compiled vintage and modern matchbooks (boxes, labels, etc.) from all over the world featuring everything from swanky bars to travel destinations, hip art festivals to government propaganda. Some proudly display athletes, opera stars, pin-up girls or politicians, each one a visual token of their time. There's a black matchbox with seductive yet simply painted red lips, with the words "Bar Savoy" written underneath in white ink; there's a white matchbox with a graceful orange tiger, complete with a verse of William Blake's poem, The Tyger; another has an illustration of Anton Chekhov's The Duel; yet another is a Japanese flag swaying in the air against a pink and yellow sunset with silhouetted swords and helmets. 

Roger Fennings is Press Officer for the British Matchbox Label and Bookmatch Society (BML&BS), a group of phillumenists from 39 countries formed in 1945. In between being a rock star, music producer and working for the British government, Fennings has been a phillumenist for over 50 years and is the author of Book of Matchbox Labels. In a phone conversation, Fennings explained the allure behind phillumeny to The Genteel: "I think the general appeal of collecting matchbox labels and related items stems from the enormous variety and quantity of subjects found on them, their global availability, and the quality of art and design put into such an everyday item." And at pennies per box, Fennings emphasises that their affordability makes the hobby accessible to a much larger segment of society than other forms of collecting, whether stamps, coins or boats.

For me, personally, it's the social history element [of phillumeny] that appeals.

The hobby has probably been around since safety matches were first invented in 1826; matchbooks naturally followed suit and by 1892, Joshua Pusey, a Philadelphia lawyer, had invented and patented the matchbook ("flexibles"), eventually selling the rights to the Diamond Match Company which then mass-produced them.

The Mendelson Opera is believed to be the first company to use matchbooks for advertising, featuring their star performers on covers. It didn't take too long before the smart folks at the Diamond Match Company - particularly Henry Traute, a young salesman - caught on and began to take full advantage of these "mini-billboards." Beer, tobacco and chewing gum companies jumped into this new advertising opportunity and saw drastic increases in sales. 

For decades, matchboxes were one the most popular forms of advertising, so much so that the medium withstood a rapidly changing society - through the Depression, world wars and the popularisation of radio and TV. Fennings points out that matchboxes were - and still are - an easy way to communicate a message, especially in countries where literacy rates were low. If it concerned the public, chances are you'd find it on a matchbox. Not only could they be carried by everyone, but with 20-50 matches in one box, the labels could be seen up to 50 times. As Fenning notes, "everyone uses [matches]," even if slightly less than before with the invention of lighters and the decline of smoking. 

German matchbook cover.

To phillumenists matchboxes are little treasures and the more dedicated among them comb the globe to find their next discovery. Fennings explains that traveling is a great way to enrich one's collection; he has traveled all over the world, including Madagascar, Sudan and Ethiopia, to add authentic matchboxes to his 300,000-strong collection. While in Bahrain, he stumbled upon a little souk with hundreds of packets of matches stacked on a shelf behind the counter. When he asked to buy them, the shopkeeper exclaimed, "They're all old and dirty and horrible," and suggested that Fennings buy the new matches. Fennings replied, "I want them because they are all old and dirty and horrible!" To Fennings, phillumeny is all about "the thrill of the chase" - even if it means his treasure is another man's trash.

Fennings explains that there really isn't an "average" collector, "our interests are as varied as the subject matter [on the matchcovers]," he assures. Some focus on the matchbooks' labels, others on match-related accessories. He recalls the specific interests of some of the collectors he knows, including wildlife, art, cars, manhole cover manufacturers and national costumes. "For me, personally, it's the social history element that appeals," says Fennings, whose book provides a lesson in social history, using matchbox labels as a pictorial guide.

My brief encounter with phillumeny has made me realise that these collectors are not simply on the hunt for artifacts, but that they're also chasing stories; there is both challenge and allure to finding their next piece of treasure. The collector and the object are co-dependent; just as the phillumenist needs the matchbox to add to his collection, the matchbox needs the phillumenist to tell its story.



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