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Early Match Making Was A Dangerous Business

The match business was booming at the turn of the 20th century when a match factory opened in Chesterfield County. The American Match Manufacturing Company started its Coalboro plant in 1903 near what today is Pocahontas State Park, according to Ken Shiflett, whose hobby is researching Chesterfield County history. The plant, which operated for 7 years, made its own matchsticks from trees grown on the property and received raw materials and shipped matches using a rail spur next to the plant.

Shiflett recently spoke to the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia at the county’s museum. He talked about the local plant, the history of matches and their dangers.

Around the fifth century A.D., the Chinese coated the tips of wooden sticks with sulfur, creating what may have been the first matches.

In 1826, John Walker, a chemist, was using a stick to mix antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum arabic and starch. The mixture stuck to the stick and burst into flames when he tried to scrape it off.

Walker saw the accidental discovery as a business opportunity. He tried selling matches, but someone copied the unpatented idea and marketed matches called Lucifers. Lucifers were expensive, unreliable and had a foul sulfur odor, Shiflett said.

In 1830, a French chemist began making matches using phosphorus, an element that had been discovered accidently by a German alchemist in 1699. The matches became popular because they were convenient and didn’t produce a bad smell.

Called parlor matches, they were made in large quantities. The convenience of parlor matches caused a significant increase in tobacco use. The word “match” is believed to come from the old French word “mece,” which meant candlewick. The origin of the term “parlor match” is uncertain, but may have come from the increasingly popular practice of lighting tobacco products in the parlor.

Unlike today’s safety matches, parlor matches could be struck on any surface, making them convenient but dangerous. Although safety matches had been invented in 1844 in Sweden, people preferred parlor matches, in spite of their hazards, Shiflett said.

Careless use of parlor matches caused many house fires, but mice gnawing on matches were also a big problem.  Shiflett said firefighters called such fires “M and M,” meaning mice and matches.

Insurance companies warned their customers that matches were “evil.” Many insurers went bankrupt because of the high number of house fire claims, Shiflett said.

Matches were quick and easy light sources. It was common to light a match in a dark basement where a spark could ignite flammable material. Matches used in closets often set clothing on fire, according to Shiflett.

As parlor matches became less expensive, their popularity grew. They were packaged in large boxes, so people put a few matches in their pockets.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch noted in its May 18, 1902, edition, “The habit that smokers allow of carrying matches loose in their pockets is a very dangerous one and no note is made of the disasters and losses that follow.”

Many matches were dropped on floors, unnoticed or, because they were so cheap, not picked up. Stepping on a match could cause a spark, resulting in a fire. In 1911, 26 women were killed in the U.S. because their fashionable long dresses caught fire when they stepped on matches, Shiflett said.

But fire wasn't the only problem. Children often chewed on poisonous match tips. Phosphorus fumes inhaled by match factory workers, including those who worked at the Chesterfield County plant, caused diseases. The worst was said to be necrosis, or wasting away of the jawbone. This disease commonly was called phossy jaw, according to Shiflett.

“The stench from the decomposing bones is indescribable and is so nauseating that dentists and physicians alike avoid patients suffering from phossy jaw,” The Chronicle-Telegram newspaper in Elyria, Ohio, reported.

Phosphorus emits a glow called phosphorescence. Shiflett said plant worker’s clothing, and sometimes their breath, had a faint glow.

Congress finally acted and outlawed parlor match manufacturing in 1911. The Chesterfield County plant had gone bankrupt the year before, the equipment sold and the facility burned to the ground. Parlor matches were replaced with today’s safety matches. It is estimated that over 500 billion safety matches are produced yearly in the United States.

Shiflett said the Chesterfield County plant escaped serious fires during its brief operation. Recent soil and water samples show no contamination. Ruins of the original plant can be seen today, although public access is not possible.

Shiflett has cleaned up some of the underbrush, downed trees and other debris. He said the current landowner is considering options to make the area a historic site available to the public.