It’s the music of Cole Porter. It’s F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It’s Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. I just love the cinematic romance of them,” says artist Aaron Kasmin of his collection of vintage matchbooks. “I love the glamour of it all, when smoking was seen as suave and sophisticated.”

Since the early days of the silver screen, the matchbook has made myriad cameo performances and played a crucial clue in many a film noir plot. For Bacall and Bogart, the prop is also written into their off-screen tryst: the story goes that when they were shooting their first movie together (1944’s To Have and Have Not) and Bogart asked for his co-star’s number, she wrote it on a matchbook.

The Nut Club, 2020, by Aaron Kasmin, £1,500
The Nut Club, 2020, by Aaron Kasmin, £1,500
Mild Wild Boar Matches by Charlotte Farmer, £65
Mild Wild Boar Matches by Charlotte Farmer, £65

Kasmin’s collection of around 500 feature matchbooks – which have images on the matches themselves, as well as on the cover – dates back to this era. “Practically all are made in America between the ’20s and ’50s, advertising mostly nightclubs but also clothing stores, insurance companies, garages…” he says. “There’s one for a furrier – but it looks like it’s from a movie, like Metropolis.” With its almost abstract, monochrome depiction of a building, the latter is one of 29 matchbooks Kasmin has drawn for his current show at London’s Sims Reed Gallery. “I just thought they were so fantastic graphically. And inventive. Yet they’re normally shut in a drawer. This is my way of putting them on the wall so others can see them. I’m paying homage to a lost world.”

Matches for Spring Place by TheMatch Group
Matches for Spring Place by TheMatch Group

Kasmin draws the matches in coloured chalk pencils, whose softness imitates the slightly faded shades of the vintage originals. The results (£850-£1,500) convey nostalgia and glamour, although Kasmin admits that phillumeny – the hobby of collecting match-related items – can be “a bit nerdy”. After buying a shoebox of matchbooks at a French foire à tout about 12 years ago, he became “obsessed” and started buying them on eBay. He pays between $5 and $60 for a single book.

The friction match was first invented by John Walker, a chemist and druggist from Stockton-on-Tees, in 1826. Early examples understandably fire up some collectors, including Alan Downer, a member of the British Matchbox Label and Bookmatch Society and the editor of its magazine, Match Label News, who started saving box labels in 1966 when he was 14. “I have around 100,000 in total,” he says, adding that his latest acquisition is two rare c1880s Spanish matchboxes – a particular interest – bought for €60 apiece. “My earliest complete Spanish matchbox dates to around 1852 and was found under the floorboards of a flour mill when it was being demolished in 1970,” he says. “It’s the stories behind them that make them interesting for collectors, along with the fantastic illustrated designs. We’ve got quite a few members who are artists or designers.” 

A 1965 Russian label from Matchbloc by Jane McDevitt and Neal Whittington
A 1965 Russian label from Matchbloc by Jane McDevitt and Neal Whittington
Matchboxes II, 2012, by Peter Blake, £2,750 from CCA Galleries
Matchboxes II, 2012, by Peter Blake, £2,750 from CCA Galleries © Peter Blake, courtesy of CCA Galleries

Glasgow-based graphic designer Jane McDevitt began collecting matchbox labels about 15 years ago, with a focus on postwar versions from eastern Europe. “The illustrations are so beautiful that I was keen to share them with lots of people,” she says. She does so on a Flickr blog that now showcases some 3,000 miniature artworks – their bright blocks of colour and midcentury styling commemorating Soviet space explorations or extolling the virtues of exercise. A selection is also beautifully presented in a book called Matchbloc and available as posters. 

For artist Peter Blake, finding “a great big suitcase” full of matchboxes at a car boot fair inspired him to create two limited-edition silkscreen prints (Matchboxes, 2011, and Matchboxes II, 2012). “[The boxes] are arranged in 10 rows of 10, so they look like a kind of weaving,” said Blake in an interview at the time. “A lot of them are Swedish, but there are also Chinese and Japanese matchboxes. It is an incredible collection from all over the world.” At Blake’s recent solo show at Waddington Custot gallery, a collage entitled In Homage to Kurt Schwitters 2 (2008) featured a matchbox by Bryant & May.

Aaron Kasmin’s c1930s Leon & Eddie’s matchbook
Aaron Kasmin’s c1930s Leon & Eddie’s matchbook

The matchbox’s versatility continues to captivate: it was used as a miniature canvas by Los-Angeles based painter Henry Taylor (examples of which were shown at Hauser & Wirth in Bruton earlier this year), and as a coffin for a taxidermy quail by British artist Polly Morgan, who sold a similar edition to Courtney Love, making tabloid headlines in 2009 when it was mistakenly thrown away by a removal man. Meanwhile, Bath-based illustrator Charlotte Farmer envisions her own whimsical labels “loosely based on vintage designs”. They often feature animals, including a cat riding a wild boar (a work on show at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition until January 2022), and are screen-printed in glorious technicolour. 

But if much of this artistic sentiment is driven by nostalgia (by the early 1980s, match sales had declined dramatically in favour of disposable lighters) this is counterbalanced by their resurgence as a promotional tool. In 2017, leading creative management agency and media consultancy B&A created a collection of matchbooks as a way to showcase the work of its roster of artists and illustrators – including Peter Blake. “The golden age of match advertising is today,” declares TheMatchGroup, a US company producing promotional matchboxes and books – including those with illustrated “feature” matches – for the likes of menswear label Aimé Leon Dore and New York/LA members’ club Spring Place.

A 1959 Czech matchbox label in Jane McDevitt’s collection
A 1959 Czech matchbox label in Jane McDevitt’s collection

“Matchboxes tell so many stories of long dinners, days spent at foreign beach bars, and drinks in swanky hotel bars,” says interior designer Matilda Goad, who relishes their retro cool. “They signal a memory of a place,” chimes in Benjamin Reynaert, creative director of furniture brand Interior Define and a contributing editor to Domino Magazine. “I like to have them around in bowls or little dishes; they just add a lot of joy and colour to a space.”

It’s also a little pop of art for shelf-arrangers and mantlescapers to play with, adding a John Derian découpage design (£8) here or a Laetitia Rouget nude (£27) there. “I’m forever grateful to the world of scented candles,” says Madeleine Allardice, who runs Oxfordshire-based letterpress company Archivist with her parents William and Sarah. “In 2010, we launched our luxury matches with 10 designs – the covers printed by Dad on his press in the garden shed – and today we have more than 150. We supply retailers from all over the globe.”

Archivist’s large-scale boxes recreate vintage labels – a 1950s Russian one of rowers, for instance, or a charming crab from 1940s China – and also showcase the work of contemporary designers from Carmarthenshire to California. “One designer we’ve worked with,” reveals William, “relies quite heavily on his matches to light a joint.”

Fire starters: the best new box designs

Matilda Goad Alphabet matchbox, £8

Cire Trudon scented matches, €15

Buly 1803 Annibal scented matches, €12.50

Polkra x Fee Greening Collective Noun matches, £10

Archivist Hippo matches, £7.20

Arkitaip x Laetitia Rouget set of two matchboxes, £27

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article