Saturday, April 19, 2014

You learn something new every day

I spent yesterday afternoon at the museum. Among other projects down there, we're in the process of slowly figuring out what all got stashed in the "attic," a storage loft that overlooks the office and the west end of the museum. For a long time, stuff would come in and get shoved up there after (at best) a cursory look into the boxes. Every so often I'd joke about how one of these days I'd find someone's giant matchbook collection and what on earth would we do with it?

Well, yesterday I popped the lid off a banker's box. Guess what it was filled with? You got it. Someone's giant matchbook collection. Do you know how many matchbooks you can fit into a box that's 24" x 15" x 10"? I don't either, but it's a lot. Definitely hundreds, maybe enough that the final tally will include a comma. Part of me just wants to reach for the round file, the one with the nifty plastic liner, and take care of them that way. Another part -- the part that actually did some preliminary pawing through the stash of matchbooks -- is going "Holy wah! A Nixon campaign matchbook!" and wondering what other goodies are hiding in the mess.

Illustration of a specialized display  
Because it is a mess. Whoever collected them was not one of those impassioned, OCD collectors who invest in specialized binders or display racks and organize their collections neatly by size (20-strike, 30-strike, or 40-strike) or type (railroads or hotels or tiki bars or a zillion other possible categories). This is more of a hoarder's collection, an "I can't throw anything away so I'll just keep filling boxes with weirdness" type of accumulation. These are matchbooks that are still matchbooks, most of which have been used. True collectors never actually use the matches; they carefully remove them as soon as they acquire the matchbook because it's the cover that counts and not what's in it.

Matches from a local bowling alley, probably from the 1950s.
Unless, of course, the matches are something like some other matchbooks we have at the museum. Matches with printing on them are (at least according to the websites I visited in an attempt to learn more about matchbooks and collecting) a specialized niche within the "matchcover" community. So are boxes instead of books. I am always blown away by the amount of trivia I can learn through a few simple Google searches. The variety of display options for matchbooks is a tad mind blowing (velvet lined shadow boxes?!), so are the numbers of people who apparently love what strikes me as being a rather strange hobby (says the person who collects tacky souvenir spoons). Then again, one thing I have been learning while volunteering at the museum and trying to track down the proper storage containers for the various artifacts and documents the museum owns is that no matter how obscure an object or device may appear somewhere there are hobbyists who love it. You name the item, someone collects it.

Once in awhile I'll have an encounter with a creationist who freaks out because he or she dislikes the notion evolutionary theory describes humans and chimpanzees as sharing a common ancestor. They don't want to be related to "monkeys." Monkeys, heck, I'd say humans are lot more closely related to this guy:
So what new thing did I learn yesterday? Advertising matchbooks are becoming an endangered species. As fewer and fewer places allow smoking, businesses have less incentive to give away matchbooks.

As for the matchbooks, we are doing an exhibit on the Joys of Collecting for the 2014 season. I'll figure out a way to display a dozen or two from the stash, go through the box to make sure there's nothing else hiding in it, and will figure out later the best way to catalog the mess.


  1. I sure have collected a lot of shit. Much of it useful if the world starts going to hell but it's looking like I'll go to hell before the world does.

    Want me to ship you some of my shit?


  2. You are right; there are no advertising matchbooks anymore. As a non-smoker I would not have noticed it until you said so. Funny how times change.


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