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Stranger Than Friction: When Matches Were Dangerous, Vestas Kept Us Safe

Some would argue that humans' ability to make and harness fire is what sets us apart from animals. Others would say that's just one of many things in our history that led to what humans are now. In any case, the way we learned to control fire has come a long way. We once kept fires going round-the-clock because it was so much easier than starting a new one. But we learned, and the history of personal fire leaves us with collectible objects, documented in Ian Spellerberg’s book Match Holders: First-hand Accounts of Tinderboxes, Matches, Spills, Vesta Cases, Match Strikers, and Permanent Matches.

Match Holders begins with a chapter on tinderboxes, which were a popular form of portable fire-making prior to the invention of the friction match by an English pharmacist named John Walker. Tinderboxes consisted of three basic ingredients—a piece of steel, often called “fire steel”; a stone flint; and tinder, usually some dried fungi or charred linen. “With practice and patience,” McLean writes, “sparks could indeed be produced by striking the steel against the stone flint. If a spark landed in the dry tinder, care was needed to coax the spark into a smouldering piece of tinder then a flame.” As McLean recounts, the clink, clink, clink of steel coming in contact with stone was once a common early morning sound, as must also have been the curses that bounced off the rafters when cold, numb hands caused a hard chunk of steel to miss its mark. Little wonder, McLean writes, “that some domestic fires were kept permanently alight.”

Things got much easier when matches were invented, but matches were dangerous and hard to keep dry. That's when we developed the match holders, or vesta cases. Read about these bygone trinkets at Collectors Weekly.

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