Collecting matchboxes was quite the thing, and for a while I collected. I must have had over a hundred carefully stuck into an old maroon exercise book. They came from all over the world – Finland, China, Sweden, Russia, India, Japan and some of the designs were very intricate, the illustrations miniature masterpieces. The names were marvellous too – England’s Glory, Criterion, 99, Lucifer, Galloping Major, King Kong, ATM, White Wolf, names from the past of Empire.
Most of the boxes themselves were made of incredibly thin wood and stuck together with even more incredibly thin paper. The labels were proudly adhered to the top and you had to be really careful to peel them off without tearing them. Bryant and May had a tiny ark on theirs and the warning to ‘use matches sparingly’. Average contents were usually 40, so (what with fags, lighting fires and gas ovens) to use a box a day wasn’t unusual. It would be fair to say that matchboxes where everywhere and you couldn’t open a drawer without finding at least one hidden at the back or tucked into a corner.
As a boy I usually had one or two empty matchboxes in my pockets. They were really useful for collecting and transporting ‘finds’ home. Spiders, ladybirds, grasshoppers, bits of broken blackbird eggshells, the occasional tiny linnet egg, a dead dried lizard, small live frogs, mouse skulls, leaves, shiny stones, fossils, shells, pieces of clay pipe - all found their way into one of my matchbox carriers at one time or another. I even kept a collection of matchboxes holding all my treasures on my bedroom windowsill - miniature worlds of boyhood.
Matchboxes were one of the most useful things in the word to a seven year old boy. You could pop them open, inserting one into another to build a tower, add card and pin wheels and race a car, stick a paper flag in one and sail a boat along the gutter on a stormy day. When I collected live things (even worms and centipedes) I made holes in the top with a nail. I once even used a matchbox to bring some frogspawn home and it worked.
For years I kept my money in a matchbox in my pocket - pennies, thruppences, tanners, shillings, two bob pieces, even the occasional half crown (which only just fitted). There was something reassuring about a heavy matchbox filled with coins, something solid that a purse (which of course a real boy would never contemplate carrying in his pocket) could never have.
It’s been years since I’ve seen a wooden matchbox. At some point they were replaced with card boxes but I don’t remember it happening. I miss them in the way that I miss a lot of things these days and I can almost still hear the crack of the thin white wood splintering as I stamped on one with my shoe.
For something that cost tuppence (including contents) in old money (less than a penny these days) matchboxes have become pretty valuable. You’ll pay at least a fiver for a slightly battered example, much more for a rare or mint one. I must have had hundreds, even thousands, pass through my hands over the years - if only I still had all of them now.