It’s 1827, and you’re a social Englishman. Among fellow English gentlemen, you sit discussing the disappointment that was Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man. Bored with the subject matter, you excuse yourself for the evening. But as you rise from a fine mahogany chair, a hot sensation erupts in your pants pocket. Your trousers are immediately engulfed in flames, and you have to strip them off in front of a room full of astounded guests. Horrified, you slink away, running near-nude to your home as your wife awaits your return. She inquires, “Where are the matches? I’ve been waiting to light the stove for dinner.” This is your third pair of trousers ruined this month. Your wife is not happy. You could have died, and you’re fresh out of pants. It’s 1827, and friction-lit matches were recently invented, but a vessel for transport that will prevent them from igniting pockets or bags won’t be invented for another year.
- “Portable Fire: A History of Match Safes” at Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.
Through March 15, 2015.
I may have taken some creative liberties in referring to you as an Englishman (and losing pants to a controlled blaze), but there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon for matches to strike while in someone’s pocket. The time difference between the invention of matches and match safes mean little to us now, but in the late 1820s, these accidental arsons did happen. Much like The Last Man, society eventually figured out match safes. The early designs were pretty simple, comprised of a plain box small enough to fit into a pocket yet large enough to hold a few matches. Eventually, craftsmen in the United States and Europe were designing the tiny boxes in a variety of colors, shapes, materials, and sizes. Custom match safes were in pockets and near fireplaces in the United Kingdom, Europe, and America.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a modern gentlemen light a cigarette with tiny matches from a small shiny box, but they’re still somewhat in demand on websites like eBay, in private collections, or through the International Match Safe Association. In spirit of the IMSA, The Delaware Art Museum is currently featuring an expansive exhibit entitled, “Portable Fire: A History of Match Safes.” The displays contain hundreds of the compact containers from basic, functional pieces to artfully designed to mass-produced carved structures. “Match safes,” reads the text accompanying the exhibition, “were made in just about every known material in the period that they were being produced.” Nickel, jade, olive wood, and animal furs are only a few of the most bizarre materials used to make the safes.
But it’s not the materials that make the boxes truly unique: it’s the subject matter depicted on each safe. Once match safe holders realized that the boxes could be used for personal expression rather than mere function, artists were often asked to create a custom, original safes. Animals, leprechauns, erotica, monograms, advertisements, body parts, and clothes are only a few of the categories comprising the weird world of match safes. Devils, demons, and generally evil beings were common features as well. Some of these designs were sinister, containing intricate demon horns or menacing devilish faces, while others were comical or jovial. The “Rebus Devil Motif,” created by Sampson Mordan Company in 1887, is one such figure. This match safe features a relaxed black devil with its legs crossed over a white backdrop and a custom space for a name that reads, “I am ____, who the (devil) are you?”
While there are quite a few theological match safes in the exhibition, the Rebus Devil is definitely not one of them. Smoking in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was met with mixed opinions, so perhaps the devil is inviting us to indulge in a vice, to do something wicked. I imagine that being the proud owner of a demon-emblazoned match safe in the late nineteenth century evoked some diabolic feelings. The devil lives in a fiery underworld, and holding a match safe, you have the power of fire quite literally in your hands (in some regions, “lucifers” was for matches). The Rebus Devil doesn’t care how you feel, he’s much more laissez faire, more apathetic. You don’t need to smoke that pipe, but doesn’t it feel so good to be bad? With its crossed legs and laid back posture, it’s almost as if the devil is inviting you to join him in smoking a cigarette or pipe. Sit back, it beckons, have a cigar, stay awhile.
In 2014, the closest thing to a match safe I’ve encountered are Zippo lighters. Both hold a fiery power inside without setting us ablaze, and both come in a variety of colors and designs. But match safes came first, long before a flip of the thumb could bring a controlled blaze to your fingertips. I own neither a match safe nor a Zippo, but if I had to choose, it would certainly be a match safe (retro is hip these days, afterall). For now, I’ll admire these man-made blazes from afar. I would hate for the damned devil to burn my last good pair of trousers. • 3 November 2014