You are here

The Matchbook: From Flame to Miniature Billboard

Spring 2014

The fire drill, the fire saw, the fire plow, and the fire thong were all commonly used methods of producing fire long before the matchbook or the lighter. Each of these methods lacked one important quality: convenience. Matches made producing fire easier than any prior method. They are no bigger than the palm of a child’s hand, yet grant so much power and control. With just one quick swipe along the striking surface, a flame bursts forth. Mark C. Bean, vice president of the world’s largest distributor of paper matches, D.D. Bean, refers to the matchbook as the best-read book in America. While the lighter may be center stage today, the matchbook was the star of the late 1800s.

Many names are associated with the beginning of the matchbook, including John Walker and Alonzo Phillips. Walker was an English chemist who invented what he called “friction lights.” However, his original matches omitted an important ingredient: phosphorus. In 1836, Phillips made a few alterations to the composition of the matter, producing ignition. Phillips was the first to receive a patent for manufacturing friction matches in the U.S., calling them “Loco Focos.”

However, Joshua Pusey, an attorney from Lima, Delaware County, was not impressed with their contributions. He was a man known for his love of cigars, but there was one problem when it came to carrying around his matches: the matches were particularly bulky and undesirable to hold. “All matches were wooden [at that time], and no gentleman was without his ornate silver match case—an object that was bulky in the pockets of the tight-fitting jackets of that era,” according to Leon S. Theil, a writer for the Match Industry Information Bureau. The match case would bulge from Pusey’s best suits and leave him feeling unnecessarily embarrassed. Pusey took it upon himself to create what he deemed a more convenient means of carrying matches.

He recalled the “Bengals,” long paper torches for public events that he had patented some years earlier. On September 27, 1892, Pusey received patent No. 483,165 for his improvements in friction-match cards. In the patent, Pusey explained the purpose of his changes:

The primary object of my invention is to provide a friction-match card designed to be attached to the wall, &c., in desirable convenient locations, and which shall be cheap, handy, and safe, both in transportation and in use.

Pusey’s modifications to the matchbook were intended to make his everyday life easier. He had no intention of selling his idea. Pusey won a three-year legal battle to protect his patent, but eventually sold the rights in 1894 to the Diamond Match Company of Cloquet, MN for $4,000 and a position as a patent consultant. Pusey remained with Diamond for 20 years and watched the matchbook grow in popularity.

Although there were many advantages to Pusey’s invention, there was still one modification that was greatly needed. Pusey originally had created his version of the matchbook with the striking surface inside the book. One quick swipe along the striking surface could result in not one, but all matches being lit!

The Diamond Match Company moved the striking surface to the outside of the matchbook and began manufacturing them. These matchbooks solved consumers’ problems. They were small and easy to carry. They were affordable, safe, and allowed consumers to light just one match at a time. What more could there be? Well, perhaps revenue. The matchbooks did not sell, despite the advantageous alterations. It was not long before the matchbook found a different purpose.

The value of the matchbook was soon found to be on the outside cover. Deborah Smith, a historian of American business culture, notes that “advertising had been around a long time… [but] the 1890s marked a turning point.” It did not take long for businesses to notice the great potential of the outside cover of the matchbook.The traveling Mendelson Opera Company was the first to purchase several hundred blank matchbooks (and hand lettered them!) to advertise their New York City engagement in 1895. More and more businesses began to recognize the success and affordability in using the matchbook as a means to promote their product.

According to Michael Prero, webmaster of the collectors’ site, “the last 100 or so years of this country are all chronicled on match covers.” Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is just one of the many well known names that utilized the matchbook for its outside value. Pabst placed an order for ten million matchbooks to use as advertisements in 1896. John Williams, secretary of the Rathkamp Match Cover Society, says that match covers are similar to a miniature history book. Although matchbooks do not contain pages of words to read, match covers have the ability to tell a story. Businesses were quick to take advantage of this discovery.

Even with the invention of the lighter, matchbooks still remain relevant today. D.D. Bean earns $25 million in annual revenue from paper matches. According to Bean, “D.D. Bean turns out 4 billion matchbooks yearly – 20 million every day – and accounts for 75 percent of the American paper match market.” Mr. Bean would not be able to state these successful statistics if it were not for Pusey. Restaurants all over the world continue to utilize matchbooks for their external value.

Today, Pusey is remembered for much more than just his creation of the matchbook. Over his lifetime, Pusey took out a total of thirty-six patents. Some of these included an artificial toboggan hill, a hydrogen lamp, and a self-opening gate for horse-drawn carriages. Put simply, he was a man with many interests and prodigious talents. Joshua Pusey’s historical marker can be found on Middletown Road in Lima, Delaware County.