Nothing complements a cold winter day like a warm wood stove.
This timeless image has been the subject of song and verse for centuries, but man’s relationship with fire dates back even earlier than that. The hairy troglodyte who kindled that first blaze is long forgotten, yet the event itself stands as one of humankind’s earliest and grandest achievements.
Here in the Upper Midwest, we still take our fires seriously — especially around the holidays. Citified modernists prefer the ease and cleanliness of faux gas logs, but romantics won’t settle for anything less than the real deal. We want crackling flames, glowing coals, and fragrant tendrils of blue smoke. We revel in splitting and stockpiling cords of wood. We obsess over moisture content and delight in aging oak and beech like fine wine.
Perhaps there’s a bit more of the lingering caveman in us than we’re willing to admit. Either way, when the wind howls and the snow flies, we enjoy a certain primordial satisfaction, and we’ve learned through experience that a quality blaze begins with a simple match.
The evolution of matches spans centuries. Chemists, inventors, and entrepreneurs threw themselves into the task with enthusiasm, but truthfully, the process was more of an extended series of accidents than a meticulous scientific procedure.
In 577 A.D., the Chinese were using sulfur-dipped pine splinters to transport flame. These “light bringing slaves” or “fire inch-sticks,” as they were known, were smoky and inconvenient at best — and exceedingly hazardous at worst — but they were the best options at the time.
Years passed and structures certainly burned, but then, in the 17th century, alchemist Hennig Brandt stumbled upon an element known as phosphorus while trying to make gold from other metals. Brandt’s get-rich-quick scheme never came to fruition, but he’d made a groundbreaking discovery that set the stage for future developments.
In the early 1800s, France’s Jean Chancel created the “Ethereal Match,” which used phosphorus-coated paper in a vacuum-sealed glass tube. Research the meaning of “ethereal” and you’ll find words like, “fragile” and “frail,” which applies in this case. To light Chancel’s match, the user would smash the glass vial, exposing the phosphorus to air, causing it to burst into flames. Suffice it to say, safety matches were still a long way off.
The first true friction match came about a few decades later when English chemist John Walker created “Lucifers,” in 1826. Like so many stories in this saga, Walker was experimenting with a paste intended for firearms, but all his tinkering led him to Lucifers. Idle hands? Perhaps, but Walker incorporated a concoction of antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum arabic, and starch onto wooden sticks. Scraping these sticks across an abrasive surface started the chemical reaction into motion. Walker invested plenty of time and capital into his project, but never patented or perfected his idea. Three years later, an associate named Samuel Jones cut Walker out of the equation and started selling Lucifers — more proof that the devil’s always in the details.
By the mid-1800s, matchstick production had become big business, and manufacturers opted for epic-sounding titles such as “Vesuvian” and “Promethean” to bolster sales. However, like today’s online matchmaking services (Tinder, being a prime example), old-world matchmaking was fraught with hazards. Prolonged exposure to white phosphorus fumes led to a horrific condition known as “Phossy Jaw,” which degraded facial bones and teeth. Workers suffering from this malady experienced debilitating pain and disfigurement, and white phosphorus was finally banned from match production in 1910.
Matches in their modern form were the brainchild of Swedish chemist, Gustaf Erik Pasch, who revolutionized the process by incorporating red phosphorus onto a prepared striking surface. Pasch’s so-called “safety match” replaced French chemist, Charles Sauria’s toxic, volatile, white-phosphorus version that was popular at the time.
Finally, after centuries of R&D and outright accidents, we finally got it right.
Enter the Ohio Match Company of Wadsworth, Ohio, who produced the most iconic matches of all, Ohio Blue Tips. Founded by E.J. Young in 1895, the Ohio Match Company blazed a bright path through the industry. This 18-acre plant churned out over 300 million wooden and paper matches per day at the apex of production. A standard box of Blue Tips held 250 pine sticks, and consumers could opt for the “strike-on-box” variety, or the sexier “strike anywhere” version.
Gentlemen such as Bing Crosby, Orson Welles, and Cary Grant would kindle a match with a casual flick of the thumbnail or swipe across a pant seam, and kids like me took notice. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Ohio Blue Tips were my hands-down favorites. However, to the chagrin of pipe-smokers and pyromaniac teenagers across the globe, the Blue-Tip brand fizzled out in 2011 when the company focused on Diamond Matches. Diamond “Greenlights” might be marginally safer and a bit more environmentally friendly, but they’re tougher to light and the heads often crumble when scraped across concrete or steel.
Perhaps you keep Diamond Greenlights by your fireplace or maybe you’ve hoarded away some old Blue Tips. Either way, modern matches are a testament to centuries of experimentation. Today’s versions incorporate soft, straight-grained wood because of its lower ignition temperature and consistent burn rate. Common choices include poplar (aspen), cedar, and white pine treated with ammonium phosphate and paraffin (which provides fuel and waterproofing). The head consists of antimony trisulfide and potassium chlorate, colored with zinc oxide. The striker strip, typically situated alongside the box, contains pulverized glass, red phosphorus, and adhesives.
We could argue all day about the best wood to burn, but one thing’s for sure: even a butane lighter can’t hold a candle to a decent match, especially those old Blue Tips. As they say in the business, “you can put that in your pipe and smoke it,” but when you do, be sure to use a match.
Nothing complements a cold winter day like a warm wood stove.