The History of Matches


In this advanced technology laden world the lowly match is taken for granted but at one time it was a marvel.

Our earliest ancestors discovered fire by rubbing two sticks together. But it was over 1 million years before a chemist, John Walker, produced instantaneous fire in the form of a match stick.

There are hundreds of books on Homo erectus, the caveman who discovered fire, but very little has been documented on John Walker the man who brought the world fire on a stick. This is not to say that other scientists and inventors had not attempted to make access to fire easier. The first one of any substance was the Boyle match.

The Boyle Match

In 1669, Hennig Brandt, an alchemist from Hamburg, was trying to change an olio of base metals into gold when he accidently discovered phosphorus. Upset that he couldn’t produce gold, he ignored the discovery which came to the attention of Robert Boyle.

In 1680, Boyle coated a small square of coarse paper and coated it with the phosphorous and a splinter of wood that had been dipped in sulfur. By dragging the splinter across the paper a flame would appear. The drawback to this invention was that phosphorus was very hard to find in those days and it made the Boyle match available only to the very rich.

The Boyle match quickly disappeared before Europeans, who were starting fires with flint and steel had even heard of it. According to Matches History – Invention of Matches in 1817 another attempt to produce a striking match witnessed.

The Ethereal Match

It was called the “Ethereal Match” and it consisted of a strip of paper treated with phosphorus that ignited when it came into contact with air. The paper was sealed in a tube and quickly burst into flames when it was removed. The quickness in which the paper combusted, made the Ethereal Match extremely dangerous and difficult to use. So in 1826 John walker was in a laboratory in the back of his apothecary trying to develop a new explosive.

As he stirred chemicals with a wooden stick, he noticed a tear-shaped drop had dried to the stick’s tip. He tried to remove the tip by scraping it across the stone floor when the stick ignited. The chemicals at the end of the stick were not phosphorus, but a mixture of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch. Walker made several more of the chemical sticks to show his friends. It is not sure if John Walker ever intended to make money off of his chemical stick. But one observing friend realized the commercial potential and set himself up in the match business.

Londoners Loved the Lucifer Matches

His name was Samuel Jones and he called his matches, “Lucifers”. Londoners loved the matches and commerce records show that after the commercially successful invention of matches that tobacco smoking of all kinds increased. These early matches gave off a shower of sparks when ignited and an odor so horrible that boxes carried a warning “If possible avoid inhaling gas; Persons whose lungs are delicate should not use Lucifers.”In the early days it was not the cigarette that was touted as being dangerous but the matches.

Phossy Jaw and the Invention of Matchbooks

In France the odor of the “Lucifers” was so repellent that in 1830 Charles Sauria , a Paris chemist, reformulated a new compound based on phosphorus. This eliminated the match’s horrible odor and lengthened its burning time.

However the new phosphorus match ushered in a new epidemic of a deadly disease known as “phossy jaw”. Because phosphorus was so highly toxic the chemical caused several types of deformities. Factory workers developed a deformed jaw as did infants who sucked on the matches. It was further discovered that the heads of these matches contained enough phosphorus to commit suicide or murder, both of which was reported. This necrosis that came with the phosphorus match caused an outcry for a nonpoisonous match.

The Diamond Match Company

This was introduced in 1911 by the Diamond Match Company. The company allowed other companies to make the match and released the patent. President Taft was so impressed by this act of humanitarian that he recommended a commendation for the company.

The match that is widely used today, the safety match, was invented by German chemistry professor Anton von Schrotter in 1855, while they did still contain poisonous ingredients, the striking part of the match of on the box. In 1892, an attorney from Pennsylvania, Joshua Pusey, invented the matchbook.

He ignored precaution and put the striking bar on the inside cover which caused numerous fires. Three years later, Diamond bought Pusey’s patent and moved the striking surface to the outside of the cover. This design has remained unchanged for over 90 years.

Matchbooks became a quantity business in 1896 when an ale company ordered fifty thousand books to advertise its product. This action launched the custom of advertising on matchbook covers. Their size, availability, and novelty in foreign countries, contributed to matchbooks being used in propaganda. The U.S. military selected matchbooks to carry morale laded messages. These were printed in several languages and dropped behind enemy lines.

Today matches are still plentiful and reasonably prices. The danger levels are minimal and their production is safe. Americans alone still strike more than five hundred billion matches a year. This is a long way from the first paper and splinter phosphorus fire starter that was produced all those years ago.