Safety Matches

Still useful and largely unchanged after 150 years, matches are probably one of the more forgettable things in the kitchen drawer. But the story of the safety match is more than just taming fire. It is also the story of the industrialization of Sweden, of monopolies and scandal, and of the man who would change Wall Street forever.

A WWII soldier striking a match to light a fuse. (Image by Life Magazine)

A soldier striking a match to light a fuse. (Image courtesy of Life Magazine)

FALSE STARTS BEFORE THE SPARK
Before matches there were sulfur sticks. They had been around since the Roman age, but needed to be lit in already smoldering tinder — to make fire with these sticks, you had to already have fire.

In 1805, long forgotten Frenchman Jean Chancel invented the first modern match. It was a little pine stick with an igniting head of potassium chloride, sulfur and sugar. This came with an asbestos bottle full of sulfuric acid. Dipping the stick into the bottle caused the acid to explode, lighting the end of the stick. This match at least ignited on its own, but too readily. Chancel’s dipping match was too dangerous to ever take off.

British pharmacist John Walker made the next attempt in 1826. Walker placed a bit of white phosphor on the tip  of a match head. The phosphor reacted to friction and could be lit on practically any surface. Besides igniting with a small explosion and casting embers far around, the horrible phosphor smell that Walkers’ matches gave off made them even less popular. The recipe was changed to conceal the smell, but it didn’t make phosphor any less toxic.

A gelatin silver print by Anton Guilio Bragaglia taken in 1911.

The Smoker – the Match – the Cigarette, Anton Guilio Bragaglia, 1911. Gelatin silver print, 11.8 x 14.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection. (Image via Art Tattler)

Workers at the match factories, many of them children, who were exposed to the chemical, developing phosphorous necrosis, or phossy jaw. Phossy jaw affected the bones and led to teeth loss, brain damage and ultimately death by organ failure. It made the inflicted give off an eerie greenish white light in the dark. No one was happy. Massive protests and workers’ strikes, led to the outlawing of phosphor matches, first in Finland in 1872 with Western Europe following soon after.

This created an opportunity for a different kind of match to take over — the safety match.

Invented by Swede Gustaf Erik Pasch, and later improved by his compatriot, John Edvard Lundström, safety matches separated the flammable ingredients, some in the match head and others in the striking surface, so that it could only be ignited if used together. The poisonous white phosphor was removed from the match head, and harmless and less combustible red phosphor was added to the striking surface.

The safety match was received with excitement and accolade at the Paris World Expo, and Lundström (together with his brother) started a small safety match factory in his hometown of Jönköping, in Sweden. Called Jönköpings & Vulcans Tändsticksfabriks AB, by the turn of the century it would become the world’s largest safety match maker, producing 1.8 million matchboxes daily. Jönköping became a capital of industry — the City of Matches.

ENTER THE MATCH KING

The floating bottom of a ship made of matchsticks

A man builds a matchstick ship. Image courtesy of The Scuttlefish.

The Lundström brothers were at the top for nearly one glorious decade before fellow Swede and global financier, Ivar Krueger entered the scene. In 1917 Kreuger managed to convince Jönköpings Tändsticksfabrik AB to sell and merge with his own safety match company, Svenska Tändsticks AB.

In preparation for this takeover, Kreuger had been working to gain control of every step of match production. He bought the company that made the production machines used in match factories. He founded another company that synthesized potassium chlorate, the active ingredient of the striking surface, and took over a Finish aspen wood factory, from which the sticks were made.

By 1919, Kreuger had mastered the process from raw material to finished product. He further rationalized the production, shipping, sales and marketing, and produced a total of 14 million crates of matchboxes every day during the height of his empire. He became the Match King.

After WWI, in war-wrecked Europe, Kreuger built a match monopoly in many cities in exchange for large loans to nations on the verge of bankruptcy. He lent money to desperate governments in Poland, Germany and France, among other countries. Where he couldn’t strike a bargain with the heads of state, he executed hostile takeovers of his competitors. By 1930, Svenska Tändsticks AB owned match factories in 33 countries, producing 60–75% of the world’s safety matches.

Never one to be modest, Kreuger’s stated goal was global monopoly. The demand for safety matches was big and steady, and Kreuger could, being a monopolist, pretty much set the price for matches. He made enormous amounts of money and was considered one of the world’s most prominent industrialists and financiers; he was received by President Hoover and made honorary doctor of economics at the University of Syracuse.

A box of Lucifer matches

Hot as hell. A box of Lucifer matches.

When Wall Street went tumbling down a decade later in 1929, so did Kruger’s empire. Alone in his Paris flat, the Match King put a bullet through his heart in March 1932.

His death sent shock waves through the already damaged economies of the U.S. and Sweden, causing bankruptcy after bankruptcy in its wake. It slowly became evident that Kreuger, had built the largest fraud scheme the world had ever seen — on the back of the safety match industry.

Although Krueger constructed a Ponzi scheme so elaborate that it makes Bernie Madoff seem like a petty thief, he also created previously agricultural Sweden’s first modern industry and helped build what would become its contemporary banking and financing system. The Match King brought safety matches all over the world and put the little town of Jönköping on the map.

In the U.S., Kreuger’s legacy can be best seen on Wall Street, where his life and death brought about a whole slew of regulations to prevent anyone from swindling the Street as Kreuger had. The match itself hasn’t changed much through all of this, and remains as useful and dependable as ever.
FURTHER READING
Factories and Manufacturers, Tobacks Tändsticks Museum
The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals. Google Books
Old Match Box Labels, Flickr
The Museum of Matches

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