Matchbook Collection – Part 1

You may have a similar pile. 

Matchbooks - Bowlful (Med)Here’s the thing about matchbooks: They’re worth something to the person who collected them, but probably no one else.

In Mom and Dad’s case, I’m betting Mom was the one who grabbed these tiny souvenirs from places at which she and Dad alighted during their many trips to medical meetings.

It’s not a huge batch. I counted 156 matchbooks and matchboxes.

Matchbooks - Hotels (Med)
Matchbooks - Restaurants (Med)Although Mom and Dad traveled abroad a lot, the only foreign pieces in the collection were from Japan.

Matchbooks - Kyoto (Med)As far as keeping all these, I wasn’t tempted. (Next week, I’ll show you the few that I took a second look at, and a handful I’ll keep.)

I considered lining up the lot of them and setting fire to the first, watching the contagion of conflagration as each ignited its neighbor.

But what if these would be precious to a matchbook collector? What if I could get a pretty penny for a matchbook from a long-defunct swingers’ bar in Houston?

Matchbooks - Scene West Cover (Med)
Matchbooks - Scene West Back (Med)
Matchbooks - Sene West Inside (Med) I looked into it. Turns out that Mom’s entire bowlful is worth about six dollars.

Matchbooks - Montana Mining (Med) In the matchbook collecting world, “old” and “collectible” mean either (1) pre-World War II or (2) in a certain random category that matchbook geeks love. Like railroads, trucking companies, U.S. Navy, World’s Fairs, pin-up girls and casinos.

But nobody wants a 1970s-era matchbook from a pharmaceutical company in the Midwest, even if the matches are wood, not paper.

Matchbooks - Ames Cover (Med)
Matchbooks - Ames Inside (Med)And nobody wants a matchbox from a foreign country, because they can’t read what it says.

Matchbooks - Panda Match (med)Regarding the 20 matches inside a standard matchbook, did you know that collectors usually remove these and display the matchbook flat? Makes sense. You probably don’t want 20 combustible sticks sitting right next to your irreplaceable Babe Ruth cover from the thirties.

Here’s more info I ran across while looking into the value of Mom’s pile.

A matchbook collector is a “phillumenist,” a word coined by a British collector in 1943. It stems from the Greek “phil” (“like”) and the Latin “lumen” (“light”).

Matchbooks - Marti's (Med)

The directive that appears on almost every matchbook, “Close cover before striking,” was thought up by Henry Traute, a young Diamond Match salesman in the early 1900s.

Among restaurant customers, matchbooks and matchboxes are much more popular than other take-aways like cocktail napkins, coasters, swizzle sticks and mints.

The invention of the disposable lighter and the rise of anti-smoking legislation decreased the number of restaurants offering matchbooks, but their use is again on the rise. Why? Because a matchbook is a cost-effective and appealing mini-advertisement.

Restaurant owners know that few people actually use the matches. Instead, they keep the matchbook as a souvenir. Customers (especially foreigners) will pocket several matchbooks and hand them out to friends back home. Later, the friends may show up at the restaurant holding the matchbook. One Oakland California restaurateur said about her matchboxes, “They go out into the world, and they bring people back.”

Matchbooks - La Fondue (Med)The most interesting piece of information I ran across while reading about matchbooks concerned Bill Retskin of Asheville, North Carolina. He’s one of the world’s major collectors, with 1.5 million vintage covers. He’s written three books about matchbooks. But in his 70s, he told that he’d lost interest in his collection and didn’t want to look at it anymore. He hoped to pass along his matchbooks to others.

Matchbooks - The Paragon (Med)Here’s what I’ll do with Mom’s: I’ll craigslist the caboodle.

“Six dollars or best offer” to some lucky phillumenist.



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