The Harlequin Match (by Bryant & May)

Harlequin Matches

Exhibitor : Rupert Harris

I acquired my first Harlequin box over 40 years ago at the age of 11. In 2008 I examined the Harlequin Collections held by other Phillumenists, undertook research at the Bryant & May Archives in Hackney, London and then in 2008 published the first edition of Harlequin Matches. As more information has come to light two further issues of this book have been produced. The third edition came out in 2021.

Harlequin” is the brightly coloured diamond shape pattern most commonly associated with clown costumes. The distinctive “Harlequin” pattern dates back to the Italian commedia dell’arte, the improvisational stage comedies popular in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

A comic character, called the Harlequin is depicted in this first image, often dressed in brightly coloured diamond-patterned tights, an ornate mask and carried a wand or stick (which became known as the slapstick).

The first Harlequin boxes

In the late 1920’s Bryant & May realised other European Match manufacturers were beginning to successfully sell into the UK market, luxury and decorative match containers.

Some of the first Harlequin boxes

Bryant & May responded in 1927 with the launch of the first Harlequin boxes. The brand was built around colour, both in terms of the multi-coloured match heads and the variation either of the paper coverings of the cardboard boxes, or many decades later the various colours of the plastic containers.

Those early cardboard boxes that have been treasured over the years, that have not suffered the knocks and bruises of life, that have been kept out of sunlight and that still contain their full content of neatly arranged coloured matches, are vividly coloured beautiful works of art.

The box shape is determined from an aerial view. The early shapes were the plain vertically sided ‘round’ – (top right) and ‘hexagon’ (bottom left) shapes. All stood 5.5cms high. The earliest examples had a sandpaper striker on the top, later it was underneath.

Three Stock Boxes

Subsequently Bryant & May marketed Stock Boxes, also 5.5 cm tall, 5.5cm deep and 12.5 cm wide.

They held 600 matches.

These ‘fancy’ boxes were selling well so Bryant & May were keen to increase the Harlequin product range. They then created a wonderful array of different shapes and sizes, including caskets and other elaborate designs.


In their advertising and with good justification, Bryant & May refer to the Harlequin as ‘The Match Deluxe’ as per their advertisement on the front page. The largest boxes were the Caskets. Later small boxes were designed that had a flare half-way up the box. There were also many other shapes and sizes between these smaller boxers and the Caskets.

For smaller boxes there would be a label on the inside of the lid, on larger boxes this label was placed on the bottom. The label displayed “Bryant & May’s – Harlequin Matches, British Made -Royal Appointment details and sometimes also stated the contents, if bound for the US market.

The original casket box


The picture on the right is of the original casket, a vertical sided hexagon with plinth base. A coloured silk ribbon was provided to open the lid and act as the hinge to the base.

‘Lift here’ tabs enabled the user to extract the first few matches that the maker had carefully put in by hand often creating a colourful pattern.

This particular example was exported to the US, the label on the lid inside reads “penitentiary offense to send these through mail”. Measurements 9.8 cm at its widest width, 8.5 cms at its narrowest and again 5.5 cms high.

Classic Casket boxes

It is however the Classic Casket shape of the flare-sided hexagon with the widest flare about halfway up the box which is perhaps the most pleasurable to behold and the crowning glory of the Harlequin Range. It is 8cms tall, 10cms across the widest part of the base and 13cms across the widest part of the flare.

A Classic Casket box

On this near mint example there is a second label in the inside of the lid and translucent tissue paper.

Other casket shapes include: a hexagon with a flare toward the bottom of the box, a caddy, an irregular shaped octagon and the kiosk.

Two casket-type boxes


On the right are two examples where the top of the box is pulled upward to reveal the matches.


You will note the first box shows the colour difference caused by light damage between the outer (greyish) and the lifted inner (clearly blue and gold).




A medium-size box

Medium and small sized boxes

Medium sized boxes are 6.6 cm tall, they came in square, hexagon (shown left), a 5-sided triangle shape (aerial view shown below) and also some had cut outs at the bottom leaving a ‘leg’ design, see below for a hexagon version of this design.

There was also a range of small boxes which have flared sides. The same height (5.5 cm) as the Plain Small shape these boxes have a narrow top and bottom, with a wider flared middle holding the same ‘aerial view’ shape throughout. The lids are shallower than those of the Small Plain boxes. The flare is usually halfway up the box, except for the regular hexagon shape where the flare is nearer to the top.

The pictures below show some medium, small and unusual-sized boxes.

Portable Harlequin Boxes

By May 1928 Bryant & May had made the decision that there was also likely to be a market for a portable harlequin box and they launched the Vanity box, they were marketed to ladies for the handbag.

The boxes are 5 cm high by 5 cm wide by 1cm deep. Typically, they would hold 20 matches of assorted colours. The lid folded over with the rounded part of the lid going into a slot to close the box. The below pictures show an open and a closed box (with the striker being visible on the bottom edge of the closed box). The whole of the outside back, front, top, bottom and sides are the same colour, and numerous patterns and colours exist.

The Dinky Box was launched shortly after the Vanity Box. Bryant & May were trying to widen the appeal of Harlequin, “THE NEW “DINKY” BOX” was “FOR THE POCKET and HANDBAG” and thus both men and women. It came in Blue, Red and Green.

The depicted Dinky box is the more commonly found second product design, patent 402534. Some examples exist of the earlier less successful patent 386577. The same dimensions as the Vanity except for a slightly larger band that runs around the top. When this band is pulled downward the 20 or so multi-coloured match heads are revealed.

A special edition of the Dinky was produced for the Empire Exhibition (Bellahouston Park, Scotland 1938). One side of the box showed the normal gold wording, but the other side depicted the Exhibition Lion in chequered pattern and beneath this “EMPIRE EXHIBITION SCOTLAND 1938” again in gold. Even rarer are the Dinky boxes produced for the Masons. 

1956 relaunch, plastic boxes

A round plastic box

The Harlequin brand was again relaunched by Bryant & May in 1956. This time in plastic not cardboard. They were initially sold for 1/10d each. They were made in two shapes, round and square. There are 8 colour variations for the square shape: Red, Pink, Blue, Green, Cream, Yellow, Salmon & Black and I suspect also for the round shape, but I haven’t seen a cream-coloured circle to confirm this).

Both round and square containers measure 4.9 cm tall and have a slightly narrower base than top. The round container has a 5 cm diameter at the top, the square container has a 4.5 cm edge.

The clear lid has “Bryant & May’s Harlequin Matches” upon it and sometimes also states the number of contents.

Rectangle flip-top plastic boxes

The other often seen plastic shape is the more recent rectangle shaped flip top. This also comes in many colours. It has a clear lid which hinges upward from the front. These were launched in 1969. They were made by Wragby Plastics Ltd of Lincoln and were injection moulded.

All these boxes measure 5.3 cm high, with a base of 7.3 cm by 4 cm and a top that measures 6 cm by 2.8 cm. The original box colours were red, yellow, blue and green. Other colours followed, black, orange, mustard yellow, turquoise blue and mauve.

The boxes of the earlier colours had “Harlequin Matches – Bryant & May” stated on their front, whilst the boxes of the later colours had “Harlequin – Bryant & May” (and not the word ‘Matches’) stated on the front in a slightly different layout. The old “Harlequin Matches” style of writing can be in either white or gold. Only gold examples of the later “Harlequin” only style is known.

On the back of the box, upon the plinth both styles state “Made in England Average Contents 100”.

The striker seems to always be of a light brown colour and is on the bottom of the box in the recess of the plinth base.

Looking back

In the mid 1920’s it was the threat of the German ‘Chintz’ decorative boxes being imported to the UK from Belgium, that stirred Bryant and May into action to create their most successful and popular fancy line ever. Without this threat Bryant and May would not have produced The Original Classic Casket that they appropriately called the “The Match De Luxe”.

Nor would they have gone on to create the rest of the fantastic, colourful artistic wonder of the Harlequin Brand. A brand which has given pleasure to so many people over the years, originally to the consumer and now to the collector.

For further information or if you would like to buy a copy of the Harlequin Matches book, please contact me via my BMLBS membership listing details.

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