Did you know lighters were invented before matchsticks? They were! However, matchsticks soon caught up and overtook the lighters in popularity; today, they are the most likely go-to option when an individual wants to start a fire. There are two main types of matches: safety matches and strike-anywhere matches, each with advantages and disadvantages. Continue reading to find out some striking matchstick facts.
1. The Longest Matchstick Measured More than 6 Meters
On November 27, 2004, Estonian Match Ltd unveiled the largest matchstick recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. The giant matchstick measuring 6.235 meters (20 ft. 5 in) long and 27.5 cm (10.8 inches) was struck at the Ugala Theater, Viljandi, Estonia, shuttering the previous record.
2. John Walker Invented the First Friction Matchsticks, Accidentally
In 1826, John Walker, an English druggist and chemist, invented the first friction matchstick, and accidentally so. As he continued his experiments, a match dipped in a lighting mixture rubbed against the earth, sparking a flame. Upon noticing this, John Walker made more frictional matchsticks, starting an evolution to what we have today.
3. John Walker Didn’t Name His Matchsticks “Congreves”
After his matchstick invention, John Walker did not name his products “Congreves,” as is often stated. Sir William Congreve was a British inventor, publisher, and entrepreneur famous for his work as a pioneer in rocket artillery. There is a myth that John Walker’s matches were named after him, but Charles Sauria, a French Chemistry student, did (made matchsticks by the name Congreves).
4. Most of the Matchstick Industry Workers Suffered from “Phossy Jaw” in the 1870s
In the 1870s, the matchstick industry was still young, trying different experiments. At the time, they relied more on white phosphorus vapor, which had extreme side effects. Most of the people working in the factories suffered from “phossy jaw,” a type of disfiguring disease that destroyed their jaw bones. They constantly demonstrated against the use of phosphorus, and many lost their lives.
5. People Once Ate Matchstick Heads to Commit Suicide
Numerous cases of people eating matchstick heads to commit suicide were reported in the 1800s. They contained phosphorus that, upon ingestion, would cause phosphorus necrosis. Eating just a pack of the matchstick heads was enough to kill an adult.
6. Ivar Kreuger Made an Empire from Selling Matchsticks
Popularly known as the “Match King,” Ivar Kreuger was a Swedish civil engineer, entrepreneur, and financier who made an empire from matchstick sales. He thrived between the two world wars, becoming a monopoly in Central America, Europe, and South America. Kreuger made so much money that he could offer loans to other countries.
7. India Is Among the Highest Matchstick-Producing Countries
India is among the world’s highest matchstick exporters and does not look like slowing down soon. In July 2023, the country reported its matchstick exports surpassed the 6,000-ton mark, a 15% increase from June 2023’s sales. The major beneficiaries of India’s matchsticks include Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, and Haiti.
8. Strike Anywhere Matches Were Very Explosive
The “strike anywhere” matchsticks are easier to light than friction matches. Initially, they were so explosive that people could light them using their thumbnails, but that changed.
9. Marlboro Was Once Subject to a Failed Marketing Gimmick that Involved Matchsticks
When the “Strike Anywhere” matchsticks were invented, Marlboro, a cigarette-making company, sought to use them to market their products. The company distributed free cigarettes and used the easy-lit matchsticks to light them. Unfortunately, the matches could light upon touching anything; they once struck and burned in the sales rep’s car, killing two and injuring one.
10. An Australian Businessman Once Created a Matchstick Brand Called “DICKHEADS”
In 1999, An Australian Businessman called d*ck Smith created a matchstick brand called “DICKHEADS” in protest against the foreign ownership of vegemite. It was also a pun on the Readheads brand of matches that was dominating at the time. d*ck Smith’s matchsticks were later discontinued.
11. Andre Ortolf Holds the Record for the Most Matchsticks Extinguished with the Tongue
On June 2, 2020, Germany’s Andre Ortolf set the record for the most matchsticks extinguished with the tongue in a minute. He extinguished 69 matches and is known to hold many more Guinness World Records titles.
12. Lucifer Matches Had Many Safety Issues
Three years after John Walker’s invention, Sir Isaac Holden, a Scottish inventor, sought to make an improved version known as “Lucifer Matches.” However, these, too, had their shortcomings. Other than an initial violent reaction, their flame was unsteady and produced unpleasant-smelling fumes. They ignited explosively, throwing sparks to considerable distances. Ezekiel Byam manufactured Lucifer matches in the United States.
13. Lucifer Was a Popular Slang for Matchsticks in the 20th Century
Even with the evolution to safer matchsticks from the explosive Lucifer ones, the name stuck throughout the 20th century. It was so popular that a part of the lyrics for the song Pack Up Your Trouble says, “When you’ve a “Lucifer” to light your fag.” Today, matches are still known as “lucifers” in Dutch.
14. John Walker Didn’t Profit from His Matchstick Invention
While it’s undeniable that John Walker was instrumental in the invention of matchsticks, he, against his friends’ pieces of advice, refused to patent his idea. In the end, the subsequent innovators profited from it.