Friday, January 7, 2011

A Match Made in . . . Stockton-on-Tees?

I live in a surprisingly sunny place for Washington State. We have 300 days of sun a year, and almost all of the 60 rainy days come between November and February. I hate these dark, dreary, drizzly days and tend to turn on far too many lights and crank up the heat to levels that would cause the more environmentally conscious to swoon. But if I’d been a nineteenth century miss, it would not have been nearly this easy to light a house or warm a room.

We’ve talked about the candles needed to brighten spaces and fireplaces needed to warm them. What was trickier was to actually light those candles and fireplaces. Early in the century, many households were still using some form of tinderbox. These metal boxes held a stone (often flint) and a piece of metal to strike against it to make a spark. They also held some form of tinder, such as fabric or small pieces of wood. The idea was to use the spark from the flint and steel to catch a piece of tinder on fire, then use it to light the candle or fireplace.

Tinderboxes gradually gave way to more mechanical methods of lighting tinder, such as strike-a-lights, which looked like a pistol. You inserted the tinder in the cylinder and pulled the trigger and the flint inside struck a spark and ignited the tinder. There were even smaller sizes to carry in your pocket so you could use them wherever you went. The biggest problems with tinderboxes were keeping them stocked with tinder and keeping that tinder dry enough to take the spark.

Another way to spark a light was to use a chemical process. Instantaneous light boxes and phosphorous boxes used vitriol and phosphorous, respectively. A stick of wood was inserted in the chemical and then struck against a surface to create friction. No more need to strictly dry tinder! Unfortunately, the chemicals could get quite messy, not to mention dangerous, if their bottles were broken.

In 1826, John Walker of Stockton-on-Tees, England, invented friction matches. A chemist and apothecary, he coated sticks with antimony sulfide, potassium, chlorate, gum, and starch. No more need to carry bottles! No more worries about wet tinder! The sticks would burst into flame when struck against anything. There lay the benefit and the danger. Now you could start a fire anywhere, anytime, even if the matches rubbed against fabric, say the inside of your pocket!

Still, friction matches were popular enough that silversmiths and other artisans rushed to create match safes, metal boxes and cylinders to keep the matches from igniting until you were ready. The safes were still used to protect matches when safety matches came until widespread use in Britain, after 1862. Don’t you love this one from 1895 in the head of a gentleman’s cane?

Makes you appreciate that light switch on the wall, eh?


Anonymous said...

That gentleman's cane is fantastic. I feel covetous. :) Also, it could be used for a plot point ... maybe a gentleman gets imprisoned somewhere with no source of light, but aha! the villains forgot to take his cane away! or something. :)

Nice post!

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, Emily! And I share your covetousness. :)

Jane Charles said...

I love these posts. I used a tinder box in one of my WIPs but at the time I couldn't find the information I was looking for. This post really makes me appreciate lighters. Love the cane.

QNPoohBear said...

How fascinating! I have a great appreciation for electric light. In the 19th century some of my ancestors lived in Northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle where it's dark most of the time in winter.

Regina Scott said...

Jane, yes, even a lighter would be easier than a tinderbox. I guess if I'd always used one, I might be good at it, but I'm guessing I'd always be the one in the dark.

And QNPoohBear, no way could I live where it's dark all winter! My stepdaughter lives in Anchorage, and I know she misses the sun too!

AnneB said...

I think the early matches were called lucifers, weren't they? Or was that only in the US?

Joanna Waugh said...

Great minds think alike, Regina! Every month, I post factoids to the front page of my website. My January factoid was about the invention of matches as well but, somehow, I missed the information about the gentleman's cane. Wonderful stuff!

Regina Scott said...

AnneB, you're right. Walker called them Congreves after the Congreve Rocket, but someone else ran with his idea and marketed them as lucifers.

Joanna--too funny! Maybe we were both looking out our windows at the dark skies when inspiration struck. :-)

Dara said...

Wow!It's amazing how far we've come in less than 200 years!