The Matchbook Edition

On hospitality, mementos, and the pocket billboard

Elliott Walker (EDW) is a creative director and co-founder of Otherward, a brand design agency in New York. He is a friend of WITI and finally decided to get in the game with his first post.

Elliott here. It’s summer in NYC and outdoor dining has entered its third wave. Bars and restaurants are feeling more alive than they have in a year and a half, which gives me an excuse to talk about one of my all-time favorite objects of design—one of the greatest promotional items ever created—and as far as I'm concerned, a mandatory detail in any reputable bar, restaurant, or hotel. I’m talking, of course, about the printed matchbook.

The first strike-able paper book of matches was patented in 1892 by Joshua Pusey, a Philadelphia patent lawyer, and inventor. "Safety" matches, made with amorphous (red) phosphorus, had been in use for a few decades, but they were large and came in wooden boxes. Pusey was an avid cigar smoker and found these matches cumbersome to carry around, so he set about developing a lightweight style bound in a paper book which he called the "Flexible Match."

Image Credit: United States Patent Office

Three years after receiving his patent, he sold it to Diamond Match Company for $5,000. At the time, Diamond Match Company was the largest manufacturer of matches in the U.S. One of the first things they did with the patent was make a few critical adjustments to the design. This included raising the ignition point of the matches by 100 degrees and moving the striker to the outside of the matchbook so that the matches could no longer self-ignite as easily. Apparently, friction from walking with a matchbook in your pocket was enough to ignite some of the initial models.

Custom printed advertising and branding began appearing on matchbook covers almost immediately after matchbooks moved into mass production. Here are a few early examples from the 1890s.

Image Credits:

Most of these early printings were done at small scales. The Mendelson Opera Company matchbooks, for example, were hand-printed with a total run of only 200 books. All of that changed though in 1902 when Diamond Match Company received an order from Pabst Brewing Company for 10 million custom printed matchbooks. The era of commercial matchbook printing had begun.

Production exploded over the first half of the twentieth century and competition between manufacturing companies led to the offering of fine printing techniques and a wide array of matchbook styles and sizes. It's hard to find an object with more visual impact and storytelling potential per square inch than a printed matchbook, and creative innovation flourished as the industry grew. Multi-color match heads, custom printed sticks, embossed foil covers all became commonplace and commercial artists at the time pushed the boundaries of what was possible with these advanced production techniques.

The hospitality industry, for their part, saw the potential in this new type of advertising platform and bought in big. Soon every bar, restaurant, hotel, and nightclub had a custom matchbook. The industry reached a crescendo by the 1950's. This just so happens to track closely with U.S. smoking rates, which hit their peak in 1954. And, production remained strong for the next few decades. At one point 35 billion matchbooks were being manufactured in a year. However, by the mid-1980's the American match industry had collapsed due in part to the decline in smoking rates and the introduction of cheap, disposable lighters.

Why is this Interesting?

Though production has been in decline for the past 30 years, matchbooks remain an enduring artifact within the world of hospitality. Walk into any good restaurant or bar today and chances are still high that you will find a dish on the maître d’ stand or a glass behind the bar filled with custom matchbooks. I've made my career as a brand designer and have had the opportunity to work on a number of restaurant projects over the years. In my experience, one of the easiest ways to help a chef or owner visualize a potential new logo is to show them what it looks like on a matchbook.

The matchbook is a historical relic. Its utility harkens back to a previous era when everyone smoked indoors. Yet, its relevance in contemporary food and drink culture is undeniable. Just because we all vape now doesn’t make a good set of matches any less vital an expression of hospitality. And it’s in part this heady collision of old and new that makes them so compelling.

Matchbooks remain a perfect souvenir for an extraordinary meal or a memorable night out. They are a physical token of a shared experience happening at a specific time and place. And, like any good memento, they help impart a sense of connection to others. Matchbooks create a through-line, from our present experience to the experiences others have shared within the same bar or restaurant, hotel, or club. They serve as evidence that you too were there and it was a good time. (EDW)

Matchbook of the Day:

From a visual design perspective, matchbooks are an extremely versatile form to work with. You can pack a lot into a very small canvas to great effect. However, simplicity can also be equally powerful. If the place is good, the name or logo is sometimes all you need. So, I'll leave you with a personal favorite:

The matchbook for fabled Meatpacking District restaurant Florent, designed by Tibor Kalman at M & Co. in 1985. Kalman had the match covers turned inside out so the raw cardboard faced outward and the coated paper was inside. As a result the restaurant's name and contact information were hidden behind the matchsticks. (EDW)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Elliott (EDW)

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