Because all matchboxes are essentially the same, brand-centric advertising on the outsides of these containers has been an important part of the industry since its foundation in the mid-19th century. Designs ranged from generic labels such as the often-imitated ones produced by the Swedish Jönköping Match Factory to more specialized lines like the “Swan Vestas” made by Collard & Kendall in Great Britain.

Swedish brands such as Tiger, Vulcan, Telegraph, Palm Tree, Light Ship, Three Storks, and Locomotive dominated the market until the Great Depression. But it was the Mendelssohn Opera Company of New York City who's credited with adopting matchboxes for marketing purposes in 1892. That's when the company’s manager had the cast decorate matchbook covers by hand with details of the show’s opening and an image of the headlining stars. Thanks to the innovative tactic, the show’s opening night was supposedly packed.

A Diamond Match company salesman named Henry C. Traute heard this tale and recognized the potential of matchbox advertising: Traute had a Pabst beer advertisement printed at matchbook size, and took it to the company’s headquarters where he secured an order for 10 million matchbooks with printed covers.

Matchbox advertising quickly spread through every industry imaginable—from soap and shoelaces to fashion labels and fancy restaurants. The household commodity was also perfect for advertising public-health initiatives, sporting events, or political campaigns. However, in the mid-1970s, the introduction of disposable lighters devastated the industry.

Some of the most popular collectible matchbox labels were produced during the late 19th century in India and China, the Art Deco era in Japan, and the mid-century period in Russia and other Eastern-Bloc countries. Their small size and large production numbers make matchbox labels an affordable way to collect vintage advertising art.


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