Skip to main content

Match Safes

July 2024
1min read

Once you’ve discovered fire, you have to keep it from burning you. This is how it was managed before the safety match.



Man’s eternal quest to find a better way to light a ' cigar culminated in the invention of the friction match, sometime during the 182Os. An English druggist named John Walker is credited with the first of these, but for some reason the public was not immediately impressed, and Walker apparently never made much money from his great invention. In 1829 the same product was marketed by one Samuel Jones, who called them lucifers and met with great success. Flint, steel, and the tinderbox disappeared. The chemistry of early matches was crude—a wooden splint coated with sulfur and tipped with a mixture of sulfide of antimony, chlorate of potash, and gum—and they were dangerous to carry. They ignited much too readily on accidental contact or when brought anywhere near heat. Protection was needed, and thus came into being the secure containers known as match safes . Match safes were usually carried on the person—in a pocket or on a watch chain—but sometimes they just sat on a table, glorious in gold, silver, enamel, horn, shell, ivory, and every other decorative substance. Those pictured here are from a collection of more than four thousand donated to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum by Carol and Stephen Brener.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.