Matchcover collecting is a hobby that is some 85 years old. The matchbook was invented in 1892, but, although there were certainly label collectors far earlier, there's no record of serious matchcover collectors until the early 1930's. And, the first club devoted solely to matchcovers didn't appear until 1941. This gap between 1892 and, say, 1930, is explained by the fact that the matchbook didn't even begin to be a common, everyday item in the United States until the late 1930's. By the early 1930s', then, collectors of matchcovers began making themselves known, and, by 1940, some had become tired of being in collectibles clubs wherein they were lumped together with collectors of other, unrelated items. Thus, they officially started the Rathkamp Matchcover Society (RMS) in 1941.
Over the ensuing years, other clubs appeared across the country and in Canada, with the result being that RMS became the national hobby organization with a loose confederation of these 'regional' clubs nominally underneath it, but RMS has no regulatory powers with respect to the regional clubs. How exactly that all came to be, I don't know, but it certainly has to do with RMS being the first on the scene. I've researched this hobby more than anyone, and I've never seen anything that addresses this question. The regional clubs all recognize the status of RMS, but all the clubs are completely autonomous.
There are currently 20 regional clubs here in the US and Canada (18 in the US and 2 in Canada). Geographically, 17 of the 18 regional US clubs are on the periphy of the country. Only one is in the interior. That corresponds to the fact that, as of this writing, only 13% of US collectors are in the interior. The other 87% are in located in the peripheral states. And that, in turn, corresponds with the larger metropoloitan areas being situated in those same peripheral states. \There are also 10 specialty clubs (clubs devoted to a particular type of cover or box).
Interstingly, although the majority of collectors are east of the Mississippi (because that's where the bulk of the American population still is, California has the most collectors...and the most clubs (3 as of this writing).
As with any hobby, this one, Phillumeny, has waxed and waned in numbers over the years, and it has its own quirks and peculiarities when it comes to the people who inhabit it. For one thing, this is a hobby devoid of children. That may well be partly due to the nature of what's being collected here, but a more important factor is the changing times. Most veteran collectors started in this hobby as a result of picking up matchbooks as souvenirs while either traveling themselves or with their familes. That doesn't happen any more, since matchbooks are much less readily available now. Also, of course, the allure of modern technology (cell phones, gaming, texting, etc.) tends to overshowdow all else as far as youth is concerned. And, of course, this is a hobby that demands patience and organization...two qualities not particularly attributed to young people.
Unlike hobbies dealing with coins, stamps, post cards, and the like, this hobby is not worldwide. Technically, Phillumeny encompasses the collecting of matchboxes, matchbox labels, and/or matchcovers. Given that definition, phillumeny is enjoyed around the world. However, because the matchbox was invented in Europe while the matchbook was invented in the United States, phillumeny has evolved into two distinct camps: most of the New World focuses on matchcovers, and the Old World focuses on boxes and labels. But, in actual fact, only the US and Canada have matchcover clubs at all, so what it boils down to is that the US and Canada represent the matchcover collecting world, and everyone else is primarily into something else.
As for the collector, himself, the 'average' collector (based on membership stats and surveys taken several years ago) is a Caucasian male, 62 years old, who belongs to several different matchcover clubs, has been collecting 18 years, and counts some 66,823 covers in his collection. Men, in fact, outnumber women in this hobby 3:1. That's been the subject of discussion for any number of years. Is it because, traditionally, smoking was basically a male activity? Probably...although most collectors do not smoke.
If one counts all the people who have traditionally accumulated matchbooks in living room bowls and such as collectors, it's been said that this is actually the second largest collectible hobby in the country, right after stamp collecting (Interestingly, the largest actual hobby overall is gardening). But, of course, such accumulations, do no qualify as collecting. The actual number of matchcover collectors has always been small.
After the inception of RMS, the number of collectors in the hobby increased over the years, albeit not steadily: 216 were enrolled in RMS in 1948, for example (although that's only RMS); 800 in 1960. Then a decline began, reaching a low of 697 in 1969. But then things took off. Overall, the hobby reached an all-time high of some 4,000 known collectors (not just in RMS) by the mid-1980s. Things were looking good!
Then disaster struck! - Disposable lighters, anti-smoking campaigns, and the domestic match manufacturing industry, itself, collapsing in the face of declining sales and increasing foreign competition. As the easy availability of matchbooks declined, collectors left in droves! But, from my persepective, those people weren't serious collectors in the first place. This hobby has always had a very large 'transiency' rate - people coming into the hobby, dabbling, looking around, and then leaving after a year or two. As the pickings became harder to obtain, the serious collectors stayed; the others disappeared.
Of course, there's also the problem of age attrition. The hobby has long been top-heavy with older collectors. As they pass away, there are fewer younger collectors to replace them. Today, as of this writing there are some 868 known collectors officially in the hobby in the US and Canada. Who knows how many 'unknowns' are out there, quietly pursuing matchcover collecting on their own, but not enrolled in any hobby organizations? But, the hobby's numbers, as with so many other hobbies, have been steadily dwindling for the last 25 years. Society has changed. The pace of living is no longer conducive to quiet, sit-down hobbies.
The hobby's in no danger of disappearing, though. There are a small number of new collectors appearing each year, and whatever the overall numbers happen to be each year, there will always be people who appreciate and collect these little pieces of cardboard history. Collectors come and go, but hobbies live on.

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