Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The History of Matches

by Misty M. Beller

In my post last month, I wrote about how early American frontiersmen built fires before matches were widely available. Now let's talk about matches themselves! 

Sulfur-head matches, circa 1828, lit by dipping into a bottle of phosphorus

Matches in Ancient Times
Sulfur matches have been around in one form or another for almost 1500 years. A note in the text Cho Keng Lu, written in 1366, describes a sulfur match, small sticks of pinewood impregnated with sulfur, used in China by "impoverished court ladies" in AD 577 during the conquest of Northern Qi. 

A book called The Records of the Unworldly and the Strange written by Chinese author Tao Gu in about 950 stated:
"If there occurs an emergency at night it may take some time to make a light to light a lamp. But an ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulfur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire, they burst into flame. One gets a little flame like an ear of corn. This marvelous thing was formerly called a 'light-bringing slave', but afterward when it became an article of commerce its name was changed to 'fire inch-stick'."
"Modern" Matches
The first self-igniting match was invented in 1805 by Jean Chancel, assistant to a Parisian professor. The head of the match consisted of a mixture of potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar, and rubber. The match was ignited by dipping its tip in a small asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid. Connection between acid and the mixture on the stick would start the fire and release very nasty fumes into the face of the user. This kind of match was quite expensive, however, and its use was also relatively dangerous, so Chancel's matches never really became widely adopted or in common use.

This approach to match-making was further refined in the proceeding decades, culminating with the 'Promethean Match' that was patented by Samuel Jones of London in 1828. His match consisted of a small glass capsule containing a chemical composition of sulfuric acid colored with indigo and coated on the exterior with potassium chlorate, all of which was wrapped up in rolls of paper. The immediate ignition of this particular form of a match was achieved by crushing the capsule with a pair of pliers, mixing and releasing the ingredients in order for it to become alight.

Friction Matches
The first successful friction match was invented in 1826 by John Walker, an English chemist and druggist. Several chemical mixtures were already known which would ignite by a sudden explosion, but it had not been found possible to transmit the flame to a slow-burning substance like wood. While Walker was preparing a lighting mixture on one occasion, a match which had been dipped in it took fire by an accidental friction upon the hearth. He at once appreciated the practical value of the discovery and started making friction matches.

John Walker, inventor of the friction match

The price of a box of 50 matches was one shilling. With each box was supplied a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it. Walker named the matches "Congreves" in honor of the inventor and rocket pioneer Sir William Congreve. Between 1827 and 1829, Walker made about 168 sales of his matches. It was, however, dangerous, and flaming balls sometimes fell to the floor burning carpets and dresses, leading to their ban in France and Germany.


In 1829, Scots inventor Sir Isaac Holden invented an improved version of Walker's match and demonstrated it to his class at Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire. A version of Holden's match was patented by Samuel Jones, and these were sold as lucifer matches. These early matches had a number of problems—an initial violent reaction, an unsteady flame, and unpleasant odor and fumes. Lucifers could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. The term "lucifer" persisted as slang in the 20th century (for example in the First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles) and matches are still called lucifers in Dutch.

Phosphorus Matches
Lucifers were, however, quickly replaced after 1830 by matches made according to the process devised by Frenchman Charles Sauria, who substituted white phosphorus for the antimony sulfide. These new phosphorus matches had to be kept in airtight metal boxes ,but became popular and went by the name of loco foco in the United States, from which was derived the name of a political party.

Those involved in the manufacture of the new phosphorus matches were afflicted with phossy jaw and other bone disorders, and there was enough white phosphorus in one pack to kill a person. Deaths and suicides from eating the heads of matches became frequent.

The New York Times report dated January 29, 1911

The Safety Match
The dangers of white phosphorus in the manufacture of matches led to the development of the "hygienic" or "safety match". The major innovation in its development was the use of red phosphorus, not on the head of the match but instead on a specially designed striking surface.

Johan Edvard and his younger brother Carl Frans Lundström (1823–1917) started a large-scale match industry in Jönköping, Sweden around 1847, but the improved safety match was not introduced until around 1850–55. The Lundström brothers had obtained a sample of red phosphorus matches from Arthur Albright at The Great Exhibition but had misplaced it and therefore they did not try the matches until just before the Paris Exhibition of 1855 when they found that the matches were still usable. In 1858, their company produced around 12 million matchboxes.

The safety of true "safety matches" is derived from the separation of the reactive ingredients between a match head on the end of a paraffin-impregnated splint and the special striking surface (in addition to the safety aspect of replacing the white phosphorus with red phosphorus). 

We still have a number of different match types available today, but the safety match is most widely used. I'm curious, how many of these match types have you heard of? 

Misty M. Beller is a USA Today bestselling author of romantic mountain stories, set on the 1800s frontier and woven with the truth of God’s love.

For a limited time, you can get one of Misty's bestselling novels free here:

Love's Mountain Quest 
After her son goes missing, Joanna Watson enlists Isaac Bowen—a man she prays has enough experience in the rugged country—to help. As they press on against the elements, they find encouragement in the tentative trust that grows between them, but whether it can withstand the danger and coming confrontation is far from certain in this wild, unpredictable land.


  1. Fascinating! I've not heard of any of the matches previous to friction matches. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Linda! I've always thought this history was fascinating too! Makes me incredibly thankful for a simple box of safety matches! :-)

  2. I've never heard of any of these matches. The evolution is interesting. I'm surprised how deadly some of the early versions were!

    1. Yes! Makes me feel incredibly blessed not to have to deal with some of those dangers that were so commonplace back then!

  3. I had to do some research on matches to make sure they were around when my story was taking place. I found the history to be fascinating and found some unusual and interesting things like you did. To me, research is one of the fun parts of writing historical fiction. Thanks for adding more insight.

  4. You're so right, Martha! I started researching matches for the same reason you did, a got sucked in. :-) I think my favorite part is the excerpt from the Chinese book written in 950 AD. :-)

  5. Good post, Misty. I'm familiar with the boxes of safety matches that were tucked into all the tin matchbox holders at my grandparents place, and beside the woodstove at our own farm.
    I'm also thankful for the waterproof tin that held my safety matches when my canoe turned over and all my stuff got wet. Plastic bags were not the enemy after THAT trip!

  6. Hello all, Has anyone run across "a block of matches" circa 1909 in North American. I have a shopping list for a two week camping trip that includes this expression.

  7. In the book mentioned (Records of the Unworldly and the Strange), what are they referring to as corn? Isn’t corn a New World plant? I don’t think they had corn in China in the 10th century.