A collector’s story

This story was written in June 2020 by Mary from Surrey as part of a creative writing project with the subject of “match”.

British market matchboxes ca. 1898 – 1910
British market matchboxes ca. 1898 – 1910

When Alex told us the next word was to be ‘match’, I thought this was a gift of a word for me as my brother, Alan, has collected matchboxes since he was about 14 years of age when he was introduced to the hobby by a school friend.

Alan is a well-regarded member of the non-profit making British Matchbox Label and Bookmatch Society, which was founded in 1945, and includes both UK and overseas members.

The actual name for his hobby (collecting different match-related items: matchboxes, matchbox labels, insert cards, matchbooks, matchcovers, matchsafes, etc.) is Phillumeny (derived from the Greek phil [loving] and the Latin lumen – [light]) and Alan, as a collector, is a Phillumenist.

Alan has an extensive collection and he has travelled to Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Belgium and France, to view other people’s collections, visit match factories and museums and attend collectors’ meetings to swap and buy or sell privately or by auction.

Alan specialises in Spanish matchboxes; he became interested in this area through our grandmother’s trips there when she brought back these pretty matchboxes with their wax matches inside.  Alan’s interest doesn’t stop there, as he collects anything connected to the ‘match’ and the match industry worldwide.

History of Matches

Matches to make fire was not really invented, it was more a progression of small steps towards what we have today.

Notable figures include Hennig Brandt, Jean Chancel, Samuel Jones, Charles Sauria and Gustaf Erik Pasch.

The British Matchbox Label and Bookmatch Society, however, hold up John Walker, a pharmacist from Stockton-on-Tees, to be the inventor of the first type of modern match, known as a friction match.  He made several prototypes in 1826 but the first one to be recorded in his sales ledger was in 1827.

History of Matchboxes and Matchbooks

Old Swedish matchbox and matches ca. 1900
Old Swedish matchbox and matches ca. 1900

Most of the early match packages were either very simple capsules or tubes of shavings with factory labels with the word ‘Tändstickor’ (Matches) and giving possibly the address of the manufacturer or instructions on how to use the matches.  Both matches and match cartons were made by hand.

Sweden: Jönköpings Tändstickor 1848
Sweden: Jönköpings Tändstickor 1848

In 1844, two Swedish brothers, Edvard and Carl Frans Lundström designed a practical form of packaging safety matches in their factory in Jönköping, Sweden. 

This type of packaging is still being used today and consists of a sliding-drawer inner box and an outer sleeve. The sides of the outer sleeve were coated with a striking surface containing red phosphorus.

Alexander Lagerman worked at the Jönköping safety match factory and built firstly a box-filling machine and then a complete machine which revolutionised safety match manufacturing.  


Some matchboxes are bought and sold for many hundreds of pounds and whole collections can be worth many thousands of pounds. 

The hobby is so vast that new collectors have to decide eventually what interests them most and in what area they wish to specialise.  Is it matchbox labels or bookmatch covers?   Is it hardware or literature?  Do they prefer Chinese designs or European?  Or buying only Swedish matchboxes?  Or, like Alan, Spanish matchbox labels and inserts.

The range of beautiful, interesting and amazing graphic design and artistry on many of these matchboxes and containers is a delight.

  • For many years, single-top labels were the most popular type of label to collect, especially among British collectors.  This is a one-panel label affixed to the top of a matchbox.  It is generally easy to remove from the matchbox and not too difficult to mount into albums.
  • The all-round label wraps around the matchbox and a collector needs to keep it intact.  It was superseded by the skillet.
  • The skillet is a matchbox cardboard outer where the design is printed onto the outer surface.  They need to be kept intact, opened at the join and flattened.
  • Packet-size labels were affixed to packets containing a large amount of boxes for sale and came in, for example, dozens or by the gross. 
  • Different again, and very popular with collectors, are book match covers.  Joshua Pusey, an American lawyer and the inventor of the modern toboggan, patented a folded piece of cardboard carrying matches and a striker in 1892.  He called them ‘flexibles’, perhaps because they could be tucked into a pocket.

Hardware is the name usually given to the match strikers and containers, including tinderboxes.  They were often made of brass, china, wood, or silver. They are highly collectable and popular with not only phillumenists.  

Some people collect complete boxes, not just labels, and many still have their matches inside.  As well as the challenging physical space required for these items, they are also, of course, a fire hazard and homes need to be insured accordingly!

Where to keep a collection can sometimes be a challenge.  Bedrooms are taken over, and house extensions and even large garden buildings are designed and built to accommodate these items. 

Alan’s specialism – Spanish

Spanish matchbox with Insert ca. 1894
Spanish matchbox with Insert ca. 1894

As well as matchboxes, Alan has a large collection of Inserts.  These are small collectable cards (32 mm x 46 mm), each one showing an attractive image of an actress, a queen, a musician, a bullfighter, a politician or similar, which were included free-of-charge inside Spanish matchboxes between 1897 and 1910.

At that time the Spanish match industry was run by a state-controlled monopoly, the Gremio de Fabricantes, which was following a trend started in cigarette papers and chocolate wrappers to entice people to collect entire Series of Inserts and therefore buy more matchboxes. 

A total of 37 different Series were issued, with 75 or more Inserts in each Series, making a grand total of 3,175 individual cards for collection (plus a few variants).

This was a purely commercial exercise by the Gremio to increase their income but these lovely cards soon became highly collectable and still are to this day. To encourage collectors, the Gremio published specially designed collectors’ albums and sheets.

As I say, Alan has visited many fellow collectors and has seen first-hand their impressive collections, especially in the last 20 years or so.  It is certainly a hobby that has enriched his life, making lots of friends in the process, and I’m sure if he met his school friend now, he would shake his hand (metaphorically speaking in these Coronavirus days) and thank him for introducing him to this interesting and unusual hobby.

Spanish matchbox ca. 1880
Spanish matchbox ca. 1880
Spanish matchbox ca. 1885
Spanish matchbox ca. 1885

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