Strike Up a Collection
by Jessica Kosinski
In the world of collectibles, some people think that bigger is better. However, some of the best collectibles come in the tiniest packages. In fact, some of them are actually tiny packages. This month it is time to examine one such package, the matchbook cover, also known as a matchcover. Matchbook covers have a history that dates back to the late 1800s. They are often sought after for their beautiful artwork or their unique origins. Let’s take a peek at how they have impacted our culture and why many of them are still collectible today.
The History of Matchbook Covers
Matchbooks with covers were first patented by Joshua Pusey of Lima, PA in September, 1892. Mr. Pusey also invented the toboggan. He designed his matchbooks to be portable and called them “flexibles.” The matchbook cover kept the matches contained until needed, and also had a striking surface used to light each match. Mr. Pusey’s design has remained more or less the same to this day, but one major change took place two years after his patent date when businesses began using matchbook covers as advertising space. This idea caught the attention of the Diamond Match Company, and they purchased the matchbook patent for $4,000 in 1896.
The Mendelson Opera Company was one of the earliest businesses to advertise on matchbook covers. The opera company used Binghamton Match Company matchbooks for their advertisements. Large companies which jumped on the matchbook cover advertising bandwagon included the Wrigley’s Chewing Gum Company and the Pabst Brewing Company.
Eventually, matchbook covers with advertising on them began popping up in other countries. However, foreign designs are not as valued in the United States. That is primarily due to the foreign writing being impossible for most people to read, which reduces the display value of the matchbook cover in question.
The earliest matchbook covers often had written advertisements such as hotel names on them. Although, some early matchbook covers did have artwork as well. However, the period of time from approximately 1920 to 1940 saw some major changes in industries, as well as in social activities. Many business owners realized that people would see their matchbooks multiple times a day and used stylish logos, patterns, and images to capture the attention of the matchbook user. Those changes led to increasingly more elaborate and artistic designs on matchbook covers. That is why many of those matchbook covers are highly sought after today. They featured images of sports stars, showgirls, famous buildings, animals, and more, based on the company for which they were advertising.
Types of Matchbook Covers
If you want to start collecting matchbook covers then you should know that there are four sizes. They are named after the number of matches they each hold. The most common is the 20-strike variety, which holds 20 matches. The others are 10, 30, and 40-strike matchbook covers. The 10-strike matchbook covers are among the rarest. The 40-strike covers often have some of the most elaborate designs due to their larger sizes. In fact, they are also called billboards.
Groups of Matchbook Covers to Collect
The hardest part about being a matchbook cover collector, also known as a phillumenist, is deciding which matchbook covers to collect. One popular category of collectible matchbook covers is hotels. Other categories which may interest you include railroad advertising, general transportation, restaurant advertising, and bank advertising.
You may also choose to focus on collecting matchbook covers from a specific U.S. state or area within that state. In fact, some phillumenists focus on collecting small town matchbook covers from across the United States. While many matchbook covers in that category have very little monetary value, they can be quite interesting from a historical standpoint.
Commemorative or limited edition matchbook covers are often the most expensive and difficult to find. For example, in 2015 a matchbook dated June 14, 1927 and produced by the Lion Match Co. sold at auction for $6,000. The matchbook had such a high value because only approximately 200 were produced and of those, only about a dozen have survived to the present day. They were distributed at a dinner in Charles Lindbergh’s honor at New York’s Astor Hotel. It is now recognized as the rarest and most valuable matchbook cover in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Another rare and valuable matchbook cover is one advertising Lillian Russell Cigars for 5 cents each. The exact date of its manufacture is unknown, but it was produced sometime between 1892 and 1898. Only approximately half a dozen are known to be still in existence today.
How to Collect Matchbook Covers
If you wish to collect early matchbook covers you have multiple options. There are several collecting clubs, pricing guides, and online forums for phillumenists. You can join one or more of those and network with like-minded collectors. You may also find matchbook covers through online auction websites, but some of the best places to find hidden gems when it comes to matchbook covers are antiques shops and flea markets.
How to Date Early Matchbook Covers
Regardless of how you find your matchbook covers, it is important to be able to date them as accurately as possible. Some early matchbook covers have dates printed on them, but don’t be fooled if you see the patent date of 1892 on one. That is the year that matchbook covers were patented, but it may not be the year the particular matchbook in question was produced.
If a matchbook cover does not have a date of production printed on it then you can try to date it based on what it is advertising. For example, if it came from a hotel which only operated for a set number of years, you can narrow the date down that way. Similarly, matchbook covers showing support for troops during World War I or World War II can be dated based on the lengths of the wars, as can any other matchbook covers commemorating specific places or events which only lasted for a short time.
Also, in 1973 a federal regulation stated that the “striker” section of the matchbook must be on the back of the book. This made striking a match safer in that the flame has a much lower chance of setting the entire book on fire. Although the user was instructed to tuck the top down behind the striker, this did not always happen and injuries occurred when the flame was lit and the tops of the remaining matches caught on fire.