Another phenomenon, still more strikingly modern, was a package of lucifer matches, which, in old times, would have been thought actually to borrow their instantaneous flame from the nether fires of Tophet.
― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
Last week, in Exploring my Scottish Roots at Cazenovia’s Brea Loch Inn George Cassidy Payne took us on a charming tour of the Brea Loch Inn. George’s montage reminded me that about ten years ago at a garage sale I bought a large bagful of matchbooks and some matchboxes collected possibly in the 1960s, but mostly in the 1970s and 1980s and perhaps part of the 1990s (with one wedding matchbook dating back to 1956) — until now mostly forgotten in the attic.The technical term for matchbook and matchbox collecting is Phillumeny. The hobby was especially popular from the 1960s through the 1980s. Several factors led to the decline of phillumeny. Smoking in general decreased while bans on restaurant and bar smoking increased. At the same time, smokers mostly switched to disposable butane lighters. Many businesses stopped offering matchbooks altogether. In addition, bulky cardboard matchboxes with less distinct images and much poorer quality of print were widely introduced — to the dismay of phillumenists who revel in the distinct and varied matchbook aesthetic.
I can’t recall exactly where or from whom I bought the matchbooks for less than five dollars. The seller was not the collector; I vaguely recall the seller mentioning the collector had died and no one wanted to keep the collection, itself a potential fire hazard.
Going through the matchbooks was a poignant experience. Perhaps the collector hoped a family member would continue the tradition, no doubt a labor of love. Now, here were the matchbooks, being sold to a stranger for basically a song. (On ebay, I discovered none of the books have a value of more than three dollars and most have none.)
The matchbooks offer a glimpse into someone’s life many decades ago. I imagine the matchbooks were mementos kept by a couple to chronicle their scenic journeys. Most of the books are from the Finger Lakes region where I assume they lived, possibly in Rochester where I bought them. One book is from the Rochester Marine Midland Bank that ceased operations in 1999.
The couple’s taste ran from folksy restaurants and diners to quaint inns, at least three of which are haunted. I can see them taking weekend getaways, soaking in the rich history of central and western New York. They mainly stayed in New York except for several trips to rural Connecticut, where perhaps they had family or a child in college. The couple did go once to the Grand Canyon, Arizona and Hawaii and once out of the country to Toronto.¹
About half the inns and restaurants still exist.
¹ I found an intriguing clue as to who originally owned the matchbooks. On the Grand Canyon book is a signature from a woman, now deceased, who lived in Town of Campbell northwest of Corning. I learned that her husband, coincidentally, now lives in Rochester only a block and a half away from me. I wondered what the man knew about the signature on the Grand Canyon book and if his late wife — or himself — was the collector. The man was intrigued by the matchbook but said he didn’t know why his wife’s signature was on the book. The man said neither he nor his wife collected matchbooks. It’s a mystery.