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Published in Design Observer, February 2, 2011
My grandma collected matches. She scooped them up on business trips from the 1940s through the 80s, while buying ladies’ dresswear for a department store in Louisville, Kentucky. An unapologetic little chimney herself, her rhythm was as athletic as a baton toss: one matchbook for the purse, one for the table nestling the smokes. One book burned up on the spot; the other got shepherded into a tall glass jug, slightly larger than a lung, to wait out its unignited life in her basement.
It’s fun to overturn the jug and paw through so much tiny, antiqued dynamite. Their kitschy covers are soaked in Walter Benjamin-esque aura like benzine. Your first thought: this is Prêt-à-Porter Without Borders. What sexualized muumuus were they peddling in Bandera, Texas, home of the Mayan Dude Ranch, “The Land of Come Again”? A button-buying bonanza, maybe, followed by famous chicken dinners at Zehnder’s in “historic Frankenmuth”. (Michigan.) Portly cartoon royalty in pink robes toddles under his motto: “Food is King”. The scene of oddly Masonic sacrifice on Lüchow’s matchbook: a live deer stands quiescent while a cook carves steaks out of its back, passing them to the reverent wait-staff. Already this feels richly like aura as Benjamin defined it: the unique phenomenon of distance, however close the object may be. But the real beauty, the startling part is their utility: all the matches still work. Why is that amazing?
Open a moldy box of fifty-year-old matches, a black coffin-like box from the Gran Hotel Ancira, Monterrey, Mexico (“aire acondicionado”). There they lie: smaller than really seems smart for matches (were fingers tinier back then? Did this bar cater to babies?) with rolled wax-paper shafts, tipped in party-pink sulfur like cupcake frosting. Here, you think, is a time-traveler. You feel so safe from this quaintness, so removed in time, that when you give a match a go, and whoompf! It takes like a baby furnace: you almost drop it in mild shock. The flame on this one has a cold bluish aspect, like fluorescent light bulbs, and an unnervingly wide flare pattern. It’s a match made to flood six inches between a man and a woman in a smoky club with brilliance, a micro-supernova sealing a moment.
Here is real time travel: you get seven seconds of light per match, but it’s seven seconds from 1958. You can collect now on a promise of fire made thirty or sixty years ago. A dubious-seeming promise, for sure: these matches are matted, like something wet that has dried, noxiously pearlescent at their tips, with shafts cut from old-growth forests – no matter. You can still get your seven seconds of fire and light, a sliver of a minute in a fringed Palm Court deep in an earlier century, reliably like clockwork.
Try another: Benihana in New York. The box is wrapped in stiff rice paper striped tricolor, mustard, cream and navy; the font coupled with the phone number — LTI-0930 — suggests early 1960s. Its matches are redwoods in miniature: splintery, long, firmly pliant, brick-red sulfur heads. These matches burn and burn and burn, upright between your fingers.
The Maisonette in Cincinnati, black stamped with a gilded fleur-de-lis: its gold-tipped matches splutter, the flame an untidy daisy shape. Tuck back your curly bangs, please. The French Shack, with its severe blue, goose-stepping chicken against a bone-white field. Its matches are cut felt in the modern style, the heads pearlescent navy, like three fathoms deep in the ocean, with greasy lighter fluid ringing their necks. The French Shack matches catch efficiently, burn the number of milliseconds an expert smoker requires to light up, then exeunt abruptly. Fumbling, amateurism, wind — the French Shack spits on these.
And the reading. The flip-top matchbooks — versus the box-style, where you slide the cover sideways — frame the matches in a marquee you can read only fleetingly: “Please don’t go away hungry” pleads the turquoise-and-green Kapok Tree Inn in Clearwater, Florida. A spiny sketch of Michigan, dotted with Win Schuler restaurants. “Victors — Penthouse — Dutch Kitchen — Piccadilly Bar” — Hotel St. Francis, San Francisco. So many words redolent of meat: rump roast, short ribs, pulled pork, sauerbraten, lo mein. An ode to gentlemanly temperance by face-painted warrior Trader Vic, once a café at The Plaza in New York. Someone’s phone number written in pencil. A lacuna in the felted cardboard: just one match torn off, not by you. That one is already gone.