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Whatever happened to the matchbook?

Believe it or not, there was a time when matchbooks were as ubiquitous as smartphones are today. No matter where you traveled — from national parks to amusement parks — and no matter where you stopped — restaurants, motels and gas stations, you can be sure there was a book of matches somewhere close by. And since they were usually free, people often took them home as little mementos of their travels.

They Started With the Old Fogey Stogie

Pennsylvania attorney Joshua Pusey was a regular cigar smoker who got tired of carrying around a big bulky box of wooden matches to light his stogies. As a result, he set out to invent a better, lighter match. By 1892, he successfully patented his idea for paper matches that he called the “flexible match.” However, Pusey had little patience for mass-producing things, so in 1895, he sold his patent to the Diamond Match Company for $5,000 up front, plus $5,000 a year to help him cover some legal problems he was having with patent infringements. (In the end, however, he was basically hiring himself as Diamond’s attorney for the rest of his life.)

Despite being such a great idea, paper matches really didn’t catch on until around 1897 when the Mendelssohn Opera Company had their logo emblazoned on the front of a matchbook and distributed them as an advertisement for their grand opening in New York City. After that, the demand for paper matchbooks really took off. Not long after, Bull Durham would order 30 million of them.

Nevertheless, people were still afraid of them.

Another problem: Advertisers expected their customers to buy their products – whatever they advertised on the matchbooks – receiving the matches as a “gift” after the purchase was made. Diamond noticed this and saw that matchbooks would better serve their purpose in advertising a product if they were given away for free. The idea worked and matchbooks started showing up in the ashtrays of coffee shops, diners, and motels all over America.

Tiny Billboards

Though most people have saved a few matchbooks from their family road trips of their youth as souvenirs, there are serious collectors of these little masterpieces of advertising art. Known as phillumenists, they often only save the cover, “shucking” (carefully removing the staple holding the book together) and discarding the matches lying within. The covers are then usually stored flat. However, there are certain novelty matches where, for example, the matches resemble bowling pins, and these are usually not removed.

You might think that the earliest matchbooks are the ones that have the highest value, but rather than age, matchbook prices tend to depend on rarity. For example, a matchbook advertising Wrigley’s Gum, designed by award winning Otis Shepherd, might only set you back about $4.00. That’s because Wrigley’s ordered a billion of them. On the other hand, one of the most expensive matchbooks will cost you a whopping $6,000 because it was created for a rare, one-day Charles Lindbergh dinner celebration.

Along with rarity, phillumenists tend to collect what they like. Maybe they collect only matches from places they’ve been, or maybe some just like to collect restaurant matchbooks. Still others might only collect matchbooks from their favorite roadside stop to grab a pecan log roll or some other fine pecan candies. (Incidentally, according to an eBay search, the price for a Stuckey’s matchbook covers averages at about $3.99 for most covers.)

Though recent changes in societal attitudes about smoking and health have made it more difficult to find businesses that still give away matches, phillumenists believe that it ended in 1962 when the government ordered friction strips be placed on the outside back instead of the outside front.  Nevertheless, it’s still a popular and relatively inexpensive hobby. So if you’re looking to become a novice phillumenist we can recommend a few covers to get you started.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again.

Whether your next road trip is by car or by rail, it’s not really a road trip without taking Stuckey’s along. From our world famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Rolls to our mouthwatering Hunkey Dorey, Stuckey’s has all the road trips snacks you’ll need to get you where you’re going.

For all of the pecany good treats and cool merch you’ll need for your next big road adventure, browse our online store now!

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!