Tom O’Key (USA)

Exhibit : Döbereiner Lighters

I collect objects and information related to specific areas of interest, where innovation in fire making is concerned. After fifty years being engaged with the subject, in a very broad sense, my focus has settled on innovations created during the age of enlightenment, and until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some of my lighters


My collection has evolved as knowledge and opportunities emerged. Information and new examples have connected enough evidence to say that a better understanding of the industry that developed and what impacts took place, as result. With that, my concentration on these interesting lighters has produced the gathering I have included in my Exhibit. 


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Norm – everyone’s favourite couch potato

Norm, illustration by Alex Stitt

Exhibitor : Jerry Bell

In 1975, the Victorian State Government in Australia was concerned at the increasing levels of obesity in the state. It resolved to encourage people to get out and exercise. Accordingly, they commissioned an advertising agency, Monahan Dayman and Adams to develop a suitable programme. In turn, MDA approached an artist, the late Alexander Stitt (1937-2016), to design an appropriate character. The result was Norm, a couch potato, who used to spend his days in front of the telly with a can of beer in his hand, probably watching sport. 

A great many Victorians could identify with Norm. Adverts were created showing Norm participating in various forms of exercise. Being a Victorian company, Bryant & May were approached to issue a set in support of this initiative, and the result was a set of eight labels, size 33 x 49mm, issued in 1976, showing Norm and his family engaged in meaningful outdoor exercise.

Greenlites were a unique invention of Bryant & May Melbourne in 1956 to deal with the problem of getting safety matches to strike properly in damp and humid climates, which applied to most of northern Australia. They were only made in the Melbourne factory, and in Papua New Guinea. The match heads were always green. They were widely exported and were used by the US Army in Vietnam. E2994 is an excise mark to indicate that the matches were made at the Bryant & May factory in Melbourne. Unique excise marks were a feature of Australian labels from 1932 onwards.

As a result, Norm became such an iconic character that the federal Government took it over from the Victorian Government and ran a series of TV commercials and print advertisements for the next 19 years. Sadly, no more labels were issued. 

Was it successful? Certainly, Norm became a household word, but did the message get through? Australia has an abundance of good food, good beer, and good sport to watch, and obesity is still a national problem, so the outcome was, at best, marginal!

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How the humble matchbox shaped my life

Bear, Gagarin, Coswig labels from DDR (35 x 50 mm)

Exhibitor : Ian Macilwain

Between the ages of 14 and 17 I started to exchange labels with collectors in Eastern Europe. For these three years regular packets of labels went to East Germany (DDR), Poland and Czechoslovakia as it was then.

It wasn’t only the labels which were exchanged but I picked up a sense of the lives of these people from the post cards and letters which they sent with their labels. From being a distant place hidden behind an impenetrable wall, it became more familiar, and spiked a curiosity about their lives which has stayed with me throughout my life.

Through my family, I had already cemented a bond with a Yugoslavian family we had met on our holidays. By the time I reached my twenties studying medicine in Aberdeen, I availed myself of an opportunity to visit Russia and Ukraine with a group of medical students, and embarked on a quest to visit Romania on a Honda 50 scooter (this trip, in 1970, is documented in my book “When I was 19 I won a Honda 50 and went to Transylvania” ). These trips would not have happened without the labels and my exchange contacts.

800 Jahre Stadt Leipzig (35 x 50 mm)

Exchanging labels with DDR

My first and most longstanding contact was with a gymnast called Peter Forster who lived in the town of Zittau on the extreme south east corner of the DDR, just a few Km from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

He sent me hundreds of labels, often in used condition, as that’s what I wanted, while I sent him sets of Brymay flowers and tartans plus other current sets from outside his orbit, like those from the Cornish Match Company.

He didn’t tell me a lot about his life but the labels spoke volumes – a picture is worth a thousand words.

Blood transfusion (35 x 50 mm)

I had a sense of the torrent of propaganda to which he was exposed, some of which was explicitly political but more often concerned health and safety.

The relationship with the Soviet Union figured frequently, as did current preoccupations, like the war in Vietnam.

There were two match factories in the DDR – Riesa and Coswig. All the pictured labels come from Riesa except the Berlin bear, the 775 anniversary of Coswig and the two Vietnam solidarity labels.

In 1993 I took the opportunity to visit his country but regrettably had not maintained a contact with him in the interval. Visiting Erfurt, Leipzig, Wittenberg and Halle proved utterly fascinating. To see a country which until four years earlier had been trapped in a timewarp, but was now like a vast building site, being rebuilt with West German money. We camped outside Leipzig in a vast campsite with several thousand emplacements. There was still ample evidence of its recent communist past. At one end stood a primitive toilet block like something out of a gulag. At the other end was a brand new fully automatic Swiss built shower block like a symbol of what was to come. The cities like Erfurt and Halle had escaped the architectural vandalism of the 1960’s in the west and were like beautifully preserved museums.

Looking back

I have attempted here to show how many of the important themes in my life stem from my lifelong interest in collecting matchbox labels. It has taken the autobiographical element of the exhibition to make me more aware of how my exchanges of labels with Eastern Europeans helped to develop my subsequent trips and interests as an adult.

Since retirement I have devoted myself to photography and publishing books. I have visited Romania more than 20 times to photograph village brandy making, and to visit the many friends I now have there. You can see more details at Broombank Publishing. This has culminated in my love for Romania and its people, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have done any of this without the demystification which matchbox label exchange provided. 

20 years of ND (35 x 50 mm)


To end on a humorous note : Neues Deutschland (ND) was the daily paper in DDR whose sense of humour is apparent!



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Döbereiner lighters

Three Döbereiner lighters

Exhibitor : Tom O’Key

After 1910, technology was just becoming standardized. The inventions of the past were becoming bygones and rapidly forgotten. By 1920, established systems were mainframes of the technology that remains relevant and often commonplace in daily use, now. Perhaps it has a special appearance in form, or clever lever and spring mechanism, make it special, but, it is basically the same technology that, has been around for a century, if a sparking flint or paper bookmatch is considered technology. So, little remains with respect to early examples as most were discarded without thought or care.

It’s with great personal gratitude that I give thanks to the great collectors of the past, for saving away the knowledge they’ve gathered together, and documented, so these, otherwise, unknown, technologies could be remembered. After all, ten million Pabst Beer matchbooks were manufactured for the first order, then thirty million more, followed! Yet, only one is known to exist, today. History can be forgotten.

Instantaneous Light

Edward Bidwell, Miller Christy, Herbert Manchester, Walter Hough, Henry Balfour, Warren Watson, Encyclopaedia Roret 1836 -1903, and now, the British Museum and many others, are the historians I have studied and read, and thanks to their example, I found subject matter that has captured my full attention, “Instantaneous Light Contrivances

The Instantaneous Light category of fire making, as described by Miller Christy, and divided away by him, from other systems, is unique in having the common denominator where chemistry, or electricity is involved, somehow. From chemical concoctions with acid bottles and hydrogen gas, to leading edge innovations in producing electricity, these inventors brought their own significance where documentation and footnotes in history happened by changing or discovering science, itself!

Bicentennial poster, July 2023

Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner

Among these innovators was a German Chemist name Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, who, in 1823, discovered that platinum metal reacted with various flammable gases.

The reaction caused one gas to ignite that was, relatively, easy to make, hydrogen! With a little engineering, a combined unit with a hydrogen gas generating apparatus and a platinum ignition system, a lighter could be created. And, indeed, they were!

Beginning almost immediately, his unpatented innovation swept across Europe and Great Britain. Later, versions were, even, made in Vermont, USA, by settlers from Austria. It goes without saying, that the fact there were tens of thousands of these lighters created, a scant few remaining examples is all that represents the technology, now.

Seven lighters

The inventory of my collection has fluctuated over time, as repetitive examples, where artistic merits, or unusual mechanical features, bring favour when trying to manage a collection of large and fragile objects.

All of my Döbereiner’s are kept in a fireproof vault.


As of now, the collection consists of about twenty examples in all states of condition or repair. Among them are versions from numerous countries and various timeframes. Early German made figural pieces to later French mechanical models, an early French clock, combined with a Döbereiner Alarm Lighter, dating to 1830, is intriguing to me. 

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Attema 75

Attema 75th anniversary presentation box (300 x 190 x 75 mm)

Exhibitor : Mike Tree

The Attema trading company was founded in Amsterdam in 1881 by Mr J W Attema. A business relationship was formed with Swedish match factories who used Attema to sell their products in the Netherlands. One of the first brands which they sold was “The Swallow” which of course is still produced today by Swedish Match.

In 1956 the company decided to celebrate 75 years of trading by issuing two luxury presentation boxes of matchboxes which were given free to their clients. The front of the presentation box carries a painting of Amsterdam by Jan Ekels the Elder (1724-1781).

Each presentation box contained :

  • 2 x 12 standard size boxes depicting regional crests
  • 2 x 12 standard size boxes depicting city crests
  • two household-size boxes
  • ca. 90 large wooden matches 

The household-size boxes had different images on them : the Montelbaan tower in Amsterdam (vertical image) and Water Mills near Breukelen (horizontal image). The standard size boxes had an Attema label on the back.

I really like this presentation box and always enjoy picking it up and looking at the varied contents. It is unusual in the Dutch market, and would have been a lovely gift to receive as a client of Attema. The original company has now ceased trading.

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Jerry Bell (Australia)

Exhibit Norm – everyone’s favourite couch potato

I started collecting matchcovers in England in 1948, with the purchase, for the princely sum of 15 shillings, of a collection made in India pre-1914, mainly of Swedish and Austrian labels. I was attracted by the outstanding artwork of many of the labels, and I still have all these labels in my collection, plus over 100,000 more.

I am fortunate that my work took me all over the world, and I now live in Melbourne, Australia.

"Average Contents 60" published in 2005
“Average Contents 60” published in 2005

I have been a member of the BML&BS for over 70 years and the Australian Match Cover Collectors Society for over 40. I have published the history of the Australian match industry, “Lighting Up Australia,” and two catalogues of former imports into Australia.

My book “Average Contents 60” is available from the Society Bookshop.

I also edited the Australian club magazine, the Observer, for 10 years, and am a frequent contributor to this and the British Match Label News.


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Ian Macilwain (UK)

Exhibit : How the humble matchbox shaped my life

Scottish Bluebell label 50 x 112 mm, ca. 1961
Scottish Bluebell label 50 x 112 mm, ca. 1961

I am a retired psychiatrist who has devoted retirement to making a series of self-published photobooks on whisky, Romania, walking and cheese making ! My lifelong matchbox collecting started at the age of 11 while waiting for a bus to go to school. My hobby is always in the background and it only takes an unusual box to ignite the fire! (not literally)

I was propelled into collecting labels at the age of 12 when, leaning over a fence waiting for the school bus I set eyes on a box of Scottish Bluebell which attracted my attention (I was in Hampshire and this was a rare label to me probably dropped by a soldier, as it was an Army camp). My friend who was with me wanted it for his collection but I decided somewhat selfishly that it would make a good start to mine !!

I joined the BML&BS in 1970 and was a member for ten years, lapsing when I had a wife and children. I specialised in Eastern Europe and had many collector pen pals in The DDR, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The hobby has never lost its allure and now that I am retired I am revisiting the fantastic archive which the collection had become. Every label carries a story and is like a time capsule to my childhood years.

Maybe with advancing years I will re-find the fascination that I used to have for this unusual hobby. Somewhat ironically I have lived in Scotland for half my life surrounded by more Scottish Bluebells than I would care to count.

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