Unique exhibit of 19th century ‘match safes’ on display in Delaware [video]

Before the Zippo, folks used matches to light fires, cigars, etc., but what would they use to keep the matches from starting a fire in your pants? Enter the ‘match safe.’

The exhibit of match safes at the Delaware Art Museum contains more than 400 examples of these little pieces of history.

What is a match safe? It started in 1826 in England; a chemist devised the first friction match. They became a hot product, but people needed a way to carry them without setting themselves on fire, thus the need for a ‘match safe’. Think today’s match books, but the match safe was made with materials like tin, ivory, prescious metals and some were crafted using precious stones.

The Delaware exhibit was pulled from collectors all over the U.S. and the best pieces were chosen to put into the exhibit.

The decorations

Match safes came in all forms, from figural designs made with porcelain to some really expensive and fancy safes made by the likes of Cartier, Faberge and Tiffany.

They were adorned with things like advertisements given out by various companies as promotional tools, artwork and pictures of family members. Most match safes however, depict some kind of cultural influence from the host country.

“In various places and in various cultures they used whatever motifs and designs and cultural things that were important to them to be put on the match safes,” said Neil Shapiro of the International Match Safe Association. He’s written several books about match safes and guest curated the exhibit.

There are samples from all over the world, and you can usually pick out their country of origin just by looking at the design. Beefeaters adorn many from England, Native Americans and gun shaped safes from the U.S., ivory and Samurai masks and nature scenes from Japan and China.

The ones from Japan are especially interesting due to the techniques used at the time to create them. When Japan opened itself up to the western world and the Samurai sword could no longer be carried around regularly, the craftspeople that worked to adorn such swords needed new jobs. They started making match safes, many of which were sold outside the country.

“Japan, for example, they had unique metal working technique. They also had 24 varieties of applying enamel to metal. Nobody else came close,” Shapiro said.

End of an era

Match safes came to an end around 1920, the reason, the lighter was created and you no longer needed to carry around a box of matches.

“Everything in match safes represents what happened from the period of about 1830 to about 1920 once the lighter became ubiquitous. The Zippo lighter pretty much killed match safes,” Shapiro said.

There were so many match safes in circulation you can still luck into some today if you know what you are looking for. You can also purchase one at the store at the Delaware Museum of Art. 

The Match safe exhibit is a fascinating look at a tiny sliver of history you may never knew existed at all. From the forms to the materials used, and of course, the artwork itself. You can see how much love and attention went into some of these pieces. “All of these objects, they are small masterpieces of art,” Shapiro said.

As you walk among the many cases on display, there is info found at the exhibit to help visitors learn more about the pieces. 

Shapiro likens looking through the exhibit to visiting the museum proper, once you start looking at the art you want to know more.

“Once you begin to study the painting and understand what went into it. And why this portrait is better than that portrait, it’s the same sort of thing that happens here. It becomes an enormous learning experience that just grows and grows and grows.” 

The exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum runs through March 15th, you can find more information when you visit their website. For more information on Match safes visit the International Match Safe Association’s website.


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