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!



Click here to return to the Exhibition Catalogue.

© Copyright BML&BS 1945 - 2024

Powered by Everything WordPress theme