An Eye-Popping Collection of 400+ Japanese Matchbox Covers: From 1920 through the 1940s

Matchbook 1

Phillu­me­ny — the prac­tice of col­lect­ing match­box­es — strikes me as a fun and prac­ti­cal hob­by. As a child, I was fas­ci­nat­ed with the con­tents of a large glass vase my grand­par­ents had ded­i­cat­ed to this pur­suit. Their col­lec­tion was an ersatz record of all the hotels and night­clubs they had appar­ent­ly vis­it­ed before trans­form­ing into a dowdy old­er cou­ple who enjoyed rock­ing in match­ing Bicen­ten­ni­al themed chairs, mon­i­tor­ing their bird feed­er.

As any seri­ous phillu­menist will tell you, one need not have a per­son­al con­nec­tion to the items one is col­lect­ing. Most match­box enthu­si­asts are in it for the art, a micro­cosm of 20th cen­tu­ry design. The urge to pre­serve these dis­pos­able items is under­stand­able, giv­en the amount of artistry that went into them. It was good busi­ness prac­tice for bars and restau­rants to give them to cus­tomers at no charge, even if they nev­er planned to strike so much as a sin­gle match.

Matchbook 2

Smoking’s hey­day is over, but until some­one fig­ures out how to make fire with a smart phone, match­box­es and books are unlike­ly to dis­ap­pear. Wher­ev­er you go, you’ll be able to find good­ies to add to your col­lec­tion, usu­al­ly for free.

Or you could stay at home, trawl­ing the Inter­net for some of the most glo­ri­ous, and sought after exam­ples of the form — those pro­duced in Japan between the two World Wars. As author Steven Heller, co-chair of the School of Visu­al Arts’ MFA Design pro­gram, writes in Print mag­a­zine:

The design­ers were seri­ous­ly influ­enced by import­ed Euro­pean styles such as Vic­to­ri­an and Art Nou­veau… (and lat­er by Art Deco and the Bauhaus, intro­duced through Japan­ese graph­ic arts trade mag­a­zines, and incor­po­rat­ed into the design of match­box labels dur­ing the late 1920s and ’30s). West­ern graph­ic man­ner­isms were har­mo­nious­ly com­bined with tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese styles and geome­tries from the Mei­ji peri­od (1868–1912), exem­pli­fied by both their sim­ple and com­plex orna­men­tal com­po­si­tions. Since match­es were a big export indus­try, and the Japan­ese dom­i­nat­ed the mar­kets in the Unit­ed States, Aus­tralia, Eng­land, France, and even India, match­box design exhib­it­ed a hybrid typog­ra­phy that wed West­ern and Japan­ese styles into an intri­cate mélange.

Find some­thing that catch­es your eye? It shouldn’t cost more than a buck or two to acquire it, though Japan­ese clut­ter-con­trol guru, Marie Kon­do, would no doubt encour­age you to adopt car­toon­ist Roz Chast’s approach to match­book appre­ci­a­tion.

Matchbook 3

Ear­li­er this spring, Chast shared her pas­sion with read­ers of The New York­er, col­lag­ing some of her favorites into an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­ic where­in she revealed that she doesn’t col­lect the actu­al objects, just the dig­i­tal images. Those famil­iar with Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleas­ant, Chast’s hilar­i­ous­ly painful mem­oir about her dif­fi­cult, aging par­ents’ “gold­en years,” will be unsur­prised that she opt­ed not to add to the unwel­come pile of “crap” that gets hand­ed down to the next gen­er­a­tion when a col­lec­tor pass­es away.

If you’re inspired to start a Chast-style col­lec­tion, have a rum­mage through the large album of Japan­ese vin­tage match­box cov­ers that web design­er, Jane McDe­vitt post­ed to Flickr, from which the images here are drawn.

Those 418 labels, culled from a friend’s grandfather’s col­lec­tion are just the tip of McDevitt’s match­box obses­sion. To date, she’s post­ed over 2050 cov­ers from all around the world, with the bulk hail­ing from East­ern Europe in the 50s and 60s.  You can vis­it her col­lec­tion of 400+ Japan­ese match­box cov­ers here. And if you’re into this stuff, check out the Japan­ese book, Match­box Label Col­lec­tion 1920s-40s.

Matchbook 4


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Adver­tise­ments from Japan’s Gold­en Age of Art Deco

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

The Mak­ing of Japan­ese Hand­made Paper: A Short Film Doc­u­ments an 800-Year-Old Tra­di­tion

Ayun Hal­l­i­day, author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine, will be read­ing from her trav­el mem­oir, No Touch Mon­key! And Oth­er Trav­el Lessons Learned Too Late at Indy Reads Books in down­town Indi­anapo­lis, Thurs­day, July 7. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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