Match Striker Style
By Karen Parr-Moody
While most people use butane gas lighters today as a means to instant fire, in 1827 the first friction match was sold, and it was the height of technology. This breakthrough made carrying fire convenient, whereas previously, creating it was a time-consuming business that required deft usage of flint and steel.
With the debut of friction matches, people needed a device to keep the matches safe and available for ready use. Match strikers were created for this purpose, and remain popular with collectors today.
Match strikers were once common objects for homes, restaurants and offices. They were made of various materials such as pottery, brass, china, silver, or wood. Like any decorative but utilitarian object, they could be plain and inexpensive, or decorative and fine.
At GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall, antiques dealer Steve Sirls is an avid match striker collector. His showcase, S-549, features scads of examples, and he has a personal collection of nearly 500 pieces.
“I like them because they were functional art and the variety was appealing,” Sirls says. “Everybody had one.”
Sirls got his first match striker in 1980. Seen in the photo at right, it is a female figural wearing a mermaid costume. “What a costume it is!” Sirls says, looking at the diminutive lady. “They get really fancy sometimes.”
This match striker is comprised of two small containers: one for matches and one for spent matches. Sometimes match strikers also include holders for cigarettes, or an ashtray. There is always a small, ridged unglazed area somewhere on the piece for striking the match. On this piece, this area encircles the pool at the figure’s feet.
Another interesting feature of this particular piece is that it is also a “fairing.” Fairings were small souvenir china boxes and figurines that were sold or won at country fairs during the nineteenth century.
Match strikers could get extremely complex in their design, as is so with this brass devil drummer in Sirls’ private collection, photo at left. This mid-19th century striker has the words “musique flambante” and “Robert le diable” inscribed at his feet. It immortalizes the 1831 production of the "Robert le Diable" opera in Paris at the Grand Opéra.
One interesting feature of this devil drummer is that, in addition to the drum used for spent matches, he has a “pipe” in his mouth. Sirls explains that this was where a match could be placed to act as a temporary candle, thus letting a person walk from room to room in the dark. Such designs were called “go to beds.”
In the photo, below right, are two more “go to bed” match strikers. It is apparent they were both used in wealthy households by their materials and their make. The faux bois striker is made of bronze and marble ($275; S-549). The oblong jasper ware box, by Wedgwood, is for holding the matches. It incorporates a striker of ribbing under the lid, and the tiny hole encircled by four flowers signifies it is a “go to bed” design.
Match strikers were often used to advertise a company’s products, such as liquors, and were freely distributed to bars and restaurants. Similarly, they were branded for hotel use with the company’s name and logo, or as souvenirs for fashionable locales. In the photo, left, are several strikers of this stripe. The camel-colored striker was made by L. Straus & Sons for the Hotel Knickerbocker ($175). The striker in the middle was a souvenir for the Britannia pier of Great Yarmouth ($32). The striker at the far right is for the Hotel de Paris, a luxury establishment in the heart of Monaco ($15).
Since people also wanted to carry matches with them on a day-to-day basis, the Vesta case was developed (Vesta was a type of European match). These were small, enclosed boxes with hinged tops that opened to reveal matches. On the bottom of these was an area where one would strike the match. In the photo, right, are some Vestas from Sirls’ collection. They include a tiny Veuve Clicquot champagne bottle, a couple of flat Vestas made of sterling silver, and a wooden version from Germany.
Whether it was a Victorian gentleman dangling a Vesta from his waistcoat pocket, or a tired socialite kicking off her shoes at night with a go-to-bed, match strikers are whimsical reminders of a time gone by. When looking for them in stores, Sirls says, “You first ask where the toothpick holders are.” Because to the modern eye, these little bursts of history can seem awfully foreign.