Vintage Matchbook Covers

My grandfather, who was a farmer in Iowa, passed away when I was only three, so I never had a chance to get to know him beyond my toddler years. But some of his hobbies and collections became items of fascination for a kid who only had those things as a connection to his grandfather. One of the things my grandfather collected was matchbooks, and he had taken his favorites and created a tabletop with them, as you can see below. This glass-covered folding table was always something that one could spend time looking at, with well over 100 matchbooks of various ages (all prior to 1968). This inspired me to start my own matchbook collection, but more on that later ...

While I find this interesting due to the age of the matchbook covers (50-85 years old?), another concept inspired me to create this feature ... could the art of matchbook covers be a dying art? Think about it - the primary purpose of matchbooks were as promotional items for places of business to hand out to their cigarette-smoking clientele. While people obviously still smoke cigarettes, the American Lung Association shows that smoking rates among adults have dropped from 42% in 1965 to 14% in 2017. When I think about it, I rarely see matchbooks being handed out any more, so we're going to archive and show some of these matchbook covers from my grandfather's tabletop as well as my own collection.

a tabletop covered with vintage matchbook covers

This first pair, below left, really amuses me: the vintage matchbook art is suggesting that playing billiards is "beneficial exercise," and that one should "bowl for your health." And not only are these suggested ways to get exercise and be healthy (while smoking!), the guys are doing these activities while wearing a suit and a dress shirt with tie. When is the last time you saw someone bowling with a tie on? It's hard for me to determine the age of these two matchbooks ... what do you think? The 1940s? 1950s? If anyone has any info about helping to date these, let us know.

Below right we have a promotional vintage matchbook for the Niagara Cave in Harmony, Minnesota. I like that it's called "an underground art gallery" and that it's a place "where nature smiles for most two miles." Based on the car in the lower left corner, one might guess that this is from the 1940s, since it resembles a 1940 Studebaker Commander.

vintage matchbook covers with themes of billiards and bowling

vintage matchbook cover featuring the Niagara Cave in Harmony, MN

Below left we have a matchbook from Western States Mutual Automobile Insurance, which I'm including here as I like the graphic design of the logo. Next to it we have a matchbook featuring a stylized "I" for the Iowa Union. Below right we have what looks like a classic mid-century interior for "Band Box," a lounge in Baltimore.

vintage matchbook covers from the mid-20th Century

vintage matchbook cover for the Band Box Bar and Lounge in Baltimore

A few more to highlight: below left, the front and back of a matchbook for McGee's Club 15, at 15 South 16th Street in Philadelphia, with a green-and-orange interior to mimic the colors of the Irish flag. Below right we have the art deco storefront for the Cafe Savoy, in Bayonne, NJ, and a picture of Jimmy Dwyer for his establishment the "Sawdust Trail" on West 44th Street in New York City.

vintage matchbook cover from McGee's Club 15 in Philadelphia

vintage matchbook covers from mid-century

As I look at the graphic design style of these last few, and it makes me think of the 1940s and 1950s, it's interesting to note that production of matchbooks peaked in the 1950s, as disposable lighters became more popular around that time, according to the Matchbook entry on Wikipedia.

Click here to view more at Part 2 of our coverage of Vintage Matchbook Art!

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