Strike A Light

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 11, 2019

The ability to make fire is one characteristic which distinguishes Man from animals. Yet I must admit that, although I’ve always heard stories about the primitive methods by which this can be done, I deserve to rank with the animals – because I still don’t know how.

In the days when even intelligent people smoked cigarettes and carried lighters, somebody invented a gag lighter. When you flicked the switch, a little red arrow popped up and pointed to the nearest person with a match.

Matches have been an important part of our history for the past two centuries. Sometimes they were called “Lucifers,” meaning literally “bringers of light.” You may remember the World War I song about packing up your troubles in your old kit bag, with its cheerful exhortation, 

While you’ve a Lucifer to light your fag,
Smile boys, that’s the style!

Selling matches on the street was once one of the more wretched ways to make a living. But even more wretched was the lot of certain people engaged in the manufacture of those matches, whose work involved frequent contact with white phosphorus. This led to the development of one of the many new diseases produced by the Industrial Revolution – a malady sometimes involving actual rotting of the teeth and jawbone, which came to be known as “Phossy-Jaw.”

Early matches could, rather dangerously, be struck practically anywhere, making very welcome the development of “safety matches,” which could be struck only on special surfaces.

By the Twentieth Century, matches had become such an essential commodity that huge fortunes arose from control of the market. Most notable in this sphere was Ivar Kreuger, “The Swedish Match King.” Unfortunately, his involvement in many enterprises which were, to say the least, shady, led to his apparent suicide on March 12, 1932. (By an odd co-incidence, this took place only two days before the suicide of another great – but decidedly more legitimate – industrial magnate, “The Yankee Camera King,” George Eastman.)

Matches were originally sold in little boxes of cardboard or wood. Those boxes are still around, and, if you describe something as being “about the size of a matchbox,” everyone knows what you mean. But it was the invention of the matchBOOK, a little over a century ago, which created a whole new medium for art, communication, and advertising. You hardly ever had to buy matches, because they were given away free by all sorts of establishments. The endless variety of designs fostered a whole new breed of collectors (a hobby known as “Phillumeny”), for whom collecting the relatively tiny, flimsy, and expensive postage stamps (“Philately”) had less appeal.

But then came the big change. Miraculous as it seemed to those of us who for many years had been forced to endure the tobacco habits of others, people stopped smoking, at least in public. It didn’t happen overnight – but smokers had been the chief users of matches. A whole etiquette had in fact developed, based on the lighting of one’s own cigarette, or those of others. There were even superstitions, such as the taboo against lighting three on a match. (This supposedly stemmed from the trench warfare of World War I, when showing a flame for that long would give an enemy soldier time to draw a bead on its source.)

There was consequently a great decline in the need for matches. This was also accompanied by the development of cheap disposable lighters – whose carelessly discarded remains now constitute a significant element in the litter which defaces our local streets.

Of course, there is still (and now often legally) the smoking of other substances. I myself once wrote a song, to the tune of “Home on the Range,” whose second verse connected that kind of smoking with the concept of brotherhood, which was so much a part of the Hippy ethos:

How often at night have I asked for a light
From a stranger whom I could not see,
And beheld in that place my own brother’s face,
Who had always been looking for me.

And we still need matches for camping, or barbecues – and, of course, for lighting candles – particularly those on birthday cakes. Children are delighted to see the number of candles, signifying how old they now are, and to ceremonially blow them out. For some reason, however, this enthusiasm tends to fade with advancing years – and in any case, the average cake is no longer big enough to accommodate an average lifetime of candles.


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