Match Safe or Vesta Box?By

Match Safe or Vesta Box?

In almost all countries but England, the flammable part of a match has always been on a wood or cardboard stick. In England, however, the flammable tip is on the end of a waxed string. This variety of a match is called a "vesta." It is like a small, thin wax candle (Fig. 1).

Vestas were first made in France in the 1830s then introduced and manufactured in England by a man named Newton. Vestas are shorter than American matchsticks and average about one and one quarter inches long. What we in America call a match safe is a "vesta box" in England. Vesta boxes are easily recognized by their size which is rarely more than 1½ inches.

Another way to identify vesta boxes is to look for a small hole about the same diameter as the stem of the vesta. The hole was used to hold a burning vesta–the vesta box acted as a candleholder, the vesta the candle. The vesta would burn just long enough to put a key in a lock or a quick change into bed clothes. Vestas are still used today in England and several other foreign countries.

History of matches

For thousands of years, a fire was started by rubbing two sticks together. It's only been within the last 150 years that making instant fire has become fairly safe and simple.

One of the first major improvements was the tinder box developed in the 1700s. Steel and flint were struck together to produce a spark which, hopefully, would ignite a small pile of tinder–usually charred linen, moss or sawdust. The burning tinder would then be used to light the fireplace or candle.

The first "match" as we understand the word today, was introduced in 1805 by a French chemist named Chanel. He coated wood sticks with a mixture of chemicals that burst into flames when dipped in a bottle of sulfuric acid. Although this may be considered the first "pocket lighter" it started about as many fires in pockets as it did in fireplaces. It was difficult to use, smelly and dangerous.

About 1827, the English chemist John Walker developed the first "friction" match. It was a wood stick topped with flammable chemicals. The sticks were packaged and sold in tin boxes which included sheets of sandpaper. Dragging the matches across the sandpaper caused the chemicals to explode then sputter like a Roman candle. These matches were nicknamed "Congreves" after military rockets invented by Sir William Congreve for England's army and navy.

Within five years, similar types of friction matches were developed in Austria and Germany. These were similar to Walker's formula but with the addition of yellow phosphorous. The phosphorous matches proved to ignite too easily – they often unexpectedly exploded from the slightest friction or pressure. Because of their fiery, explosive nature, these phosphorous matches were called "Lucifers."

Lucifers caused many accidents and health problems. They ignited or exploded so often, U.S. railroads refused to ship them. Match company workers who inhaled phosphorous fumes developed open sores on their skin. Finally, about 1850, Lucifers and yellow phosphorous were banned from most countries and replaced with the safety match.

The safety match could be ignited only when rubbed across a specially prepared surface; it would not light simply by striking it across a rough surface. It was developed about 1855 and used virtually unchanged down to the present time. In 1892, an American enclosed the safety match in a cardboard folder or "book" and invented the matchbook.


Fig. 1 The American match safe, left, is 2¾ inches. The English vesta box, right, 1 7/8 inches. Typical wood match, A, and vesta, B, shown for comparison.


Fig. 2


Fig. 3

Figs. 2-3 Many, but not all, authentic vesta boxes have small holes as shown in Fig 3. The holes were for holding burning vestas, Fig. 2.