When the Tierra del Fuegans, a primitive people living at the inhospitable southern tip of South America, were first discovered by Magellan, they had no knowledge of how to start a fire. They simply waited for nature to produce it and then kept it going for years on end. Israelites in the Old Testament were rubbing sticks together to produce fire. The Ancient Greeks gave us the word “match,” which is derived from their word for dried fungus, which was saved up to ignite by flint-produced sparks. Archimedes started fires by directing the sun’s rays through a lens. Things developed rather slowly for the next 2000 years. By the early 1800s, the tinderbox was a standard ingredient in every home and in every gentleman’s pocket. But, as Charles Dickens once complained, with luck, one might get a fire from a tinderbox in half an hour on a damp day!

In 1827, however, a French chemistry student, Charles Sauria, discovered the principle of the phosphorus match. After watching a demonstration of the reaction of sulphur mixed with Chlorate of Potash, Sauria eventually experimented by rubbing the prepared end of his match on a wall where there was some phosphorous. His match immediately ignited, and so did the development of the match industry! The first phosphorous friction matches in the United States were manufactured in 1836.

A few short years later, by 1850, there were 60 match factories in the entire country. In that same year, the first such factory opened in California. New York, with 18, was far ahead in both number and production. Connecticut was second with nine, and Massachusetts was third with eight. By 1860, the number of plants had increased to 75. The industry then employed 604 men and 648 women, many working part time or at home.

By 1880, however, the number of match manufacturers dropped from a high of 79 to 37. As the larger companies had become mechanized, smaller businesses that used older, less efficient machines, or still relied on hand-made techniques, had been pushed to the edge of failure. Many had been forced to shut down after the stock market crash of 1873 led to a deep depression. To make matters worse, the nation’s two largest match companies were deadlocked in a ruinous price war.

Swift & Courtney & Beecher, a consolidation of three match makers, had entered St. Louis and the Midwest from the East Coast. Accordingly, O.C. Barber built a factory in Philadelphia and cut prices even further. Swift & Courtney & Beecher struck back by introducing new and cheaper brands. Between 1878 and 1880, Barber’s company lost about $90,000. He and William Swift, president of Swift & Courtney & Beecher, finally agreed that they were each cutting their own throats and that a merger would be best for everyone. The two great giants of the industry, and ten other companies, merged to form the Diamond Match Company of Connecticut in December, 1880, although production didn’t begin until early 1881. With the formation of Diamond, and its purchases of the rights to Joshua Pusey's matchbook in 1894, among others, the American match industry, as we know it, was born.

Although, worldwide, the 20th century industry was dominated by Swedish Match (and still is), here at home the domestic industry was ruled by the Big Five: Diamond, Universal, Lion, Ohio, and D.D. Bean. The American match industry reached its height in the 1940s and 1950s. It should be noted, however, that D.D. Bean's "slice" of the industry was basically vending machine matches. Its matchbooks were cheap, poorly made and usually disdained by collectors. In 1991, though, after acquiring new four-color printing equipment, D.D. Bean introduced the first Joe Camel cigarette set. Since then, their covers have been slick and attractive.

By the mid-1980s, the industry had collapsed here in the United States. It just couldn't compete any longer with foreign imports. Most of the previous great companies were gone. Today, with so many states and local communities passing anti-smoking legislation, match manufacturing is an endangered industry. There are only two domestic manufacturers left: Diamond Brands (the only boxed wooden matchstick manufacturer is part of Jarden Home Brands, a division of Jarden Corporation) and D. D. Bean. Atlas produces basically all of the small business matchbooks. D. D. Bean, still dominates the resale/vending market. Canada's great producer, Eddy Match, also disappeared. There are no manufacturers left in Canada.

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