Tiny Treasures: 1950’s Matchbook Cover Designs


1826, is said to be the date on which John Walker accidentally invented matches that could be lit by friction.

Last weekend my friend picked up a box of 1950s matchbook covers (as in matchbooks but without the matches in them) at an estate sale.  There ended up being around three or four hundred matchbooks in the box.  In the photo above you can see their breadth and variety and felt they might be interesting to analyze from a design perspective. They are also cool pieces of Denver history (although they’re hard to see in detail in the photo). Of the matchbooks – half are from Denver, including a ton of hotels and restaurants that no longer exist, and a bunch are from railroads in Vegas, and Chicago.  One is for a barbershop at 9th and Downing, right where they built King Soopers, and apparently there was a huge bowling alley that used to be at Colfax and Ogden.  When I think about the purpose of matchbooks from at least 60 years ago, where smoking was prevalent and needing a light was like needing your iphone, it makes me wonder if the tradition of design for these small objects carries as much importance today. The matchbook is like a 3-D business card – with magical fire power!

As it turns out, some of the above are actually worth $4-5 apiece. (My friend paid just $4 for the whole box).

For your reading pleasure, here are some fun facts about matches:

1. John Walker discovered them when trying to rub off some chemicals that had solidified on the end of a stick he had been using to stir them.

2. He called them ‘Congreves’ after Sir William Congreve, who had invented a rocket used in war.

3. They were also known as ‘lucifer matches’. Nobody called them just ‘matches’ until 1830.

4. The word ‘match’ had previously been used for the wick of a candle or a piece of cord dipped in sulphur to be used to light a candle or lamp.

5. Cigarette lighters, which were invented in 1816, were around before matches were invented.

6. Book matches were invented in 1889 by Joshua Pusey, a cigar-smoking lawyer in Pennsylvania.

7. Around the world about half a trillion matches are used every year.

8. The word ‘phillumenist’ for a collector of matchbox covers was first recorded in 1943.

9. The Chinese are thought to have made a type of match in the sixth century by dipping pine sticks in sulphur and letting it dry.

10. Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs was a UK No 1 hit in 1978 for Brian and Michael and referred to paintings by LS Lowry.