Chapter 51: A History of Matchboxes

Matches are composed of a sliding-drawer within a sleeve, and since their appearance by the very nature of their packaging, have facilitated the widest range of graphic design and artistry.

In 1827, John Walker, English chemist and apothecary, of Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, apparently by accident, created a fire by scrapping a potassium-chlorate coated stick, over a surface covered by antimony sulphide, on the hearth. Walker had been experimenting with explosives and the making of percussion caps for cartridges and was almost certainly aware of the experiments by Irish physicist, Robert Boyle (of the fame Boyle's Law), who in 1680 had covered a small piece of paper with phosphorous and coated a small piece of wood with sulfur, and had shown that rubbing the coated wood across the paper would create a fire. Walker's experiment led him to produce the first ‘matches’, which were initially made with a cardboard splint although pine veneer was later substituted. In these first friction matches, Walker used antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch. He did not patent his matches, which he called "Congreves". His first sale of the matches was on April 7, 1827, to a certain solicitor by the name Mr. Hixon.

Swedish Matchboxes Established the Broad Parameters of Design for the Rest of the World. 

It was in Sweden that Edvard Lundström (1815-1888) developed the Swedish chemist Gustaf Erik Pasch's idea of safety match and applied for its patent with a phosphor-free character. Johan's younger brother, Carl Frans Lundström (1823-1917) was the entrepreneur and industrialist who helped him to set up a safety match factory in Jönköping, Sweden in 1844-1845. The manufacturing process began in 1853 and was a major success at the World Expo in Paris 1855. Lundströms were awarded the silver medal for developing  a technology for manufacturing matches free of phosphorus poisoning. Although, safety matches were expensive to produce, by 1868 they became known throughout the world as Allumettes Suédoises in France, Schwedenhölzer in Germany and Swedish Matches in England. The dominance of Swedish matchbox labels defined the criteria for the design of matchbox labels and subsequently, most if not all matchbox labels in the world were modeled on those criteria.

Wonderful designs of German matchboxes. They defied the German criteria

Most of the early match packages were either very simple capsules with factory labels and were stamped with the word ‘Tändstickor’ (Matches) or they included other information such as the address of the manufacturer, and instructions on how to use the matches. These early designs were quite monotonic and their typography was dictated by the printing techniques. However, with the rapid technical advance of printing process, aesthetical considerations began to appear in the design of matchbox labels. Of course, these designs were heavily influenced by the Swedish norms. At the same time the lack of copyright law allowed a lot of plagiarism.

The graphic designs of these Soviet Russia's matchboxes not only were artistically stunning, but also redefined the Swedish criteria.

Ironically, perhaps, the soviet Russia's graphic designers were quite elegant and effective in their advertisement designs that appeared on their matchboxes 

The Russian graphic designers have been amazingly successful in creating these powerful images.

For a long time, matches were manufactured by hand. They were made of aspen and a single log of aspen could produce 370,000 matches. Planing the matches by hand was heavy, time consuming work. The matches were then dipped in sulphur, which meant that the flame could easily be transferred from the head of the match to the wood. Johan Edvard Lundström later came up with a way to eliminate the smell of burning sulphur. The matches were dipped in wax or paraffin. They were then dipped in the match head substance that consisted of stibnite, gum, starch and potassium chlorate, and were then left to dry. Finished matches were packed into capsules or tubes of brass or shavings. Once the manufacturing of safety matches had begun, the Lundström brothers came up with a practical form of packaging that is still being used today, the modern-day matchstick box with an inner box and an outer sleeve. The sides of the outer sleeve were coated with a striking surface containing red phosphorus. Even matchstick boxes were handmade.

Matchboxes of Swiss

Delightful Designs of Indian Matchboxes

There is a refreshing innocence in the Indian designs of these matchboxes that renders them with a rather unique identity.

Both the traditional and modern  Japanese designs on matchboxes exhibit an exquisite sense of balance and grace.

Alexander Lagerman (1836-1904) began working at the Jönköping safety match factory in 1870. He is regarded to be one of the pioneers of mechanisation. Alexander Lagerman built a machine that produced matchboxes. He then produced machines that manufactured the inner and outer boxes. At the start of the 1880s, he built a box-filling machine that filled 20,000 matchboxes a day. The machines were kept a secret from the competition and weren't patented for another 20 years, but were still a major innovation. In 1892, Lagerman's complete machine came along, revolutionising safety match manufacturing. The machine dipped matchsticks in sulphur, paraffin and the match head substance; it split them, dried them and then packed them into matchboxes. Everything was automated. When the Jönköping safety match factory was built, it produced approx. 4,000 boxes a year. By 1896, more than seven million boxes were being manufactur ed a year!

Matchboxes of the US

Chinese designers still need to find their own voices Matchboxes

A matchbox from Norway echoing a Japanese voice. 

A Belgian Matchbox.

A powerful  matchbox design by a Belgian graphic designer that shows that for a true artist the size of the platform would not impose any restriction.

A Dutch matchbox design, using only typography.

The typography of early matchbox labels was also dictated by what was fashionable, and hence available, at the time. Typefaces that were in popular use such as Bodoni, Didot and others of a similar ‘modern’ serifed style,were the ones first applied to matchbox label design. They were initially set in a similar style to that of the Classical period when the typefaces were created. However, soon after, with the onset of the era of Historicism, Classical typography became incorporated into the revived antiquated forms of vegetation and architecture that symbolized the Gothic and Roccoco periods.

Matchbox was superseded in the west in the late 1970s by the printed and folded card boxes known as skillets, but has only recently become obsolete in the former Soviet bloc countries.

Red & Black Matchboxes of Iran (1940-50s)

The safety match, and it’s production technology, are two of the inventions that made Sweden an industrial nation with export. When Solstickan (the sun stick) was created in 1936, safety matches had been produced in Sweden for almost 100 years. The label drawing was made by the artist Einar Nerman, and it has been said to be the most reproduced work of art in the world. On this picture it’s in the original form with no toning on the sun.


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  1. Great collection of images! So fun! The cultural differences are wonderful and their ages too. Love that you have a ton.

  2. Very nice work! But as a Swede I missing the two major brands-still on sale in Sweden with minor changes: 1. "Solstickan"(The Sunstick) : illustration made by Einar Nerman. 2."Tre Stjärnor (Three Stars.,brandname who have "Solstickan" as a "underlabel". "Solstickefonden (The Sunstick foundation) was/is a children's charity foundation.. Every box sold generate a small share to the organisation even today. Thanks!