A Brief History of Restaurant Matches

“People are always astounded that we still have Michael’s matches at the front desks,” says restaurant owner Michael McCarty, who offers the once-ubiquitous restaurant keepsake at both his restaurant locations: Michael’s Santa Monica and Michael’s New York. Although matchbooks are no longer a go-to restaurant souvenir, Michael’s offers a classic 1½” x 2 ¼” sized matchbox — emblazoned with the bi-coastal restaurant’s signature Art Deco-inspired pale pink script against a dark green background. McCarty posits, however, that his guests’ surprise is disingenuous. Truth is, he says, “everybody loves a great box of matches.”

“We think of matches as a nostalgic collectible [that] people tend to hold onto.”

While smoking rates have plummeted in recent decades, that doesn’t diminish the appeal and utility value of the match. (After all, you never know when a stove might fail to light, or the power might unexpectedly go out.) Peter Garfield, managing partner of One Off Hospitality Group in Chicago, which stocks matchbooks at its casual retro-influenced Dove’s Luncheonette and Big Star restaurants, points to the sentimentality factor. “We think of matches as a nostalgic collectible,” he says, noting that they’re a useful object that “people tend to hold onto.” Nate Tilden, owner of Portland’s Clyde Common, agrees. “It’s an old-school piece of the restaurant, a take-away,” he says. Tilden’s gathering spot — located in the Ace Hotel in the heart of Portland — offers slim boxes with its name in red sans serif font on one side, and an illustration of a cleaver on the other. Tilden goes so far as to dismiss match alternatives, such as toothpicks and scratchpads, as less desirable restaurant “swag.”

Given that the phosphorus-coated sticks aren’t as frequently used to light up a filterless Camel or an American Spirit, matches’ symbolism and public image have changed. “If you smoke, you have a Bic,” says Jerry Anderson, a recently retired match salesman. Anderson, who’s also known as “the Matchman,” spent 27 years working for the Texas-based Atlas Match, and has seen matches’ role in American life evolve in those three decades. “People who don’t smoke use more matches than people who do,” he says, “so the whole thing has been reversed.” Here’s a look at the popular souvenir’s history, from its peak during the early decades of the 20th century to the folks keeping the tradition alive today.

A Brief History of Restaurant Matchbooks

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German alchemist Hennig Brand’s discovery of phosphorous in 1669 eventually led to Englishman John Walker’s creation of the “friction” match, which he invented in 1827. Although wooden matchsticks were once the norm, the item became even more useful and convenient when Philadelphia patent attorney Joshua Pusey devised compact cardboard matches just a few decades later. According to Close Cover Before Striking: The Golden Age of Matchbook Art (by H. Thomas Steele, Jim Heimann, and Rod Dyer), Pusey secured a patent for the compact cardboard match in 1892. He then sold it to the Diamond Match Company, where he stayed on board as the new enterprise’s in-house patent attorney. (Heimann, now the executive editor for the publishing house Taschen America, has designed matchbooks for NYC restaurateur and hotelier Sean MacPherson.)

But the matchbook’s potential as an advertising vehicle gained traction when Diamond match salesman Henry C. Traute heard about a New York City opera’s company success in promoting a performance via illustrated matchcovers. According to the New Yorker, in 1902, Traute brought the concept to the Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee, thus making PBR the first food and beverage company to invest in branded matches. (A 1953 Kiplinger’s article reported PBR placed an initial order for 10 million matches.) Traute found subsequent success with Bull Durham and other major tobacco companies, as well as with Wrigley, makers of chewing gum. Traute’s other major contribution to the field was improving safety by relocating the striking surface to the matchbook exterior — hence the familiar phrase, “Close Cover Before Striking” — as well as convincing retailers to give matchbooks free to customers.

According to match salesman Anderson, that’s one aspect of custom-designed match packages that has stayed constant since the late 19th century. “It’s probably the most cost-effective advertising because [reaching for a matchbook tallies] 20, 30, 40 exposures,” he says. (One thing that has changed: the design. In 1973, federal safety laws required that strikers be placed on the backside of matchbooks instead of the front.)

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Matchmakers Today

Close Cover Before Striking identifies D.D. Bean & Sons Co., Ohio Match Company, Diamond, Match Corporation of America, Lion, Atlas, Monarch, Federal, Universal, and Superior as the biggest manufacturers of collectible matchcovers during the industry’s heyday, which lasted roughly from 1920 until World War II. But by the time Close Cover was published in 1987, fewer than 20 companies produced matches in the U.S., a number that’s only precipitously declined since.

Pillumenist Michael Prero of The Matchcover Vault notes all that remain are “the three big domestic manufacturers: Atlas, Diamond, and D.D. Bean.” Or as Bob Stine, vice president of Maryland Match Corporation in Baltimore, puts it, “the strong have survived.” Maryland, which was founded in 1935, technically isn’t a manufacturer — it’s a distributor that purchases the base physical product from other makers like Atlas, then customizes them for clients. Today, Atlas is the sole extant domestic producer of matchbox and book covers for the hospitality industry. New Hampshire’s D.D. Bean and the Diamond Match Company are still in business, but both mostly make matches for the retail sales market — they also make the free matchbooks given out at large-scale businesses like convenience stories. Most match and related packaging manufacturing has moved overseas to Japan, China, and India. (Take a close look where your matches were made next time you pick up a new book or box.)

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Given that cultural and health trends have not been in its favor, the matchbook industry has had to adapt in the wake of widespread smoking restrictions. For the majority of hospitality industry professionals, matches have already inched their way over to the “nonessential” column on business expense ledgers. “For years we offered matchbooks as a fun take-away that also promotes the restaurants endlessly,” says Caroline Styne, who co-owns the Lucques Group of restaurants (with chef Suzanne Goin) in Los Angeles. But Styne explicitly mentions the lack of present-smokers as one of the reasons the group stopped offering branded matchbooks. “I always think about the collection of matchbooks that we have at home and how they keep those restaurants in my mind,” she says. “But, with the decline in the number of smokers out there and the rise in the cost of operating the business, we decided to phase them out.”

Stine, who has been with Maryland Match Corp. since 1978, has witnessed this reaction firsthand. “For the first couple years in some of the major areas, it was getting harder to convince restaurant owners that matches were still a way to promote their brand and their image,” he admits. Stine is sanguine thanks to Maryland Match’s steadily increasing sales volume over the past six years, but he’s realistic. “It’s not what it was; it never will be the way it was,” he says of the match industry. “Our biggest issue is still convincing young restaurant owners that it’s the most inexpensive way to get your name out. We don’t promote it as a smoking tool any longer.”

That fact is not lost on restaurateurs like Tilden, who views this type of souvenir in a completely contemporary context. “I never thought of them as an aide for smoking,” he says. But that doesn’t mean no one smokes anymore. Stephen Stryjewski, chef and co-owner of the Link Restaurant Group’s Cochon and Butcher in New Orleans, pointed to the “large drinking and smoking contingent here” that make matches more prevalent, although the city passed its first-ever smoking ban that will take effect in bars, casinos, and clubs starting next month. Regardless of his customers’ personal habits, Stryjewski thinks the broader message justifies the expense. “It’s really not that much money,” he says of the object. “I like the tone that it sets.”

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The Collectors

Anderson, the former match salesman who lives in Orange County and whose territory included most of the West Coast, remembers how “a lot of the old-timers kept them because they realized [the product is] for advertising,” he says. “Customers can’t smoke in restaurants, but they can smoke elsewhere. And that’s when you really want them to have your matches.”

And the passion of collectors and pillumenist societies makes up in part for the loss of the product’s ubiquity. While lay people will interchangeably use the terms “matchbooks,” “matchboxes,” and “matches,” it’s the matchcover that really matters to hobbyists. Chester Crill of Angelus Match Cover Club, which is based in the Los Angeles area and meets regularly, explains that “matchboxes, even with the best artwork from any time period, are of no interest to cover people.” (Graphics and illustrations were more elaborate in decades past, compared to the current preference for relatively minimalist designs and simpler branding.)

SF’s Wayfare Tavern distributes 100,000 matchbooks per year. In Las Vegas, Caesars Palace hands out 150,000 books for free.

Enthusiasm flourishes online as well, where collectors’ sites and relatively new websites such as A Life in Matches and The Matchbook Project — as well as the Matchbook Diaries, a recently launched New York City-based Instagram account — are a reminder of matches’ enduring popularity. “In the last decade, whenever a new good-looking matchbook for a popular spot has been issued, they get snapped up,” Crill says. Natalya Gavic, beverage director at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, a city that’s one of the largest markets for matches, is familiar with this phenomenon. “It’s that easy collectible when you go inside the casino,” she says. Combining Caesars’ casino floor with its multiple bars and lounges, Gavic estimates 150,000 books are distributed for free each year. “You want to turn in your chips, but you keep the matchbooks.”

Tony Marcell, director of operations at chef Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern, says the restaurant is a hotbed for matchbook collectors and grabbers. “We go through almost 100,000 a year,” Marcell notes about the San Francisco restaurant’s matches. Customers “don’t grab one, they grab three or four. Which is fine, because it’s an offering. People appreciate them.” Clyde Common’s Tilden sees a deeper significance to the fire-starting implement, too. “As a restaurant owner and chef, it’s the element that allows us to transform food,” he says. Plus in certain urgent times of need, matches can communicate to the customer that “the restaurant has your back,” Tilden says. “We gave you the element to survive.”