On his first day in America, a European walked into a tobacco shop and asked for a pack of cigarettes. As he was about to hand over his money, he noticed that the clerk had included a match book with his purchase.
"No, thank you," he said. "Matches I still have. I bought on the ship."
"You might as well take them," the clerk smiled. "They're free, you know."
The European was at first incredulous, then delighted. For matches are by no means taken for granted in Europe, where most governments have monopolies over them and matches are often poor in quality and hard to find.
In the United States, tobacco dealers, restaurant cashiers, druggists, and hotel clerks will hand out billions of matchbooks this year to millions of Americans. And in spite of the fact that nine out of ten are given away free, these little booklets make money for practically everyone who touches them.
It has become so profitable to give away matches that industries in practically every conceivable field vie with each other to see who can hand out the most. Scores of dry-cleaning establishments slip a matchbook into the pocket of every suit they return. Many businessmen watch the birth reports in the daily papers so they can send matchbooks labelled "It's a Boy" or "It's a Girl" and carry advertisements of their products to new parents.
Not content with giving out matches free, some advertisers even clip their products to the booklets. That is how Gillette blue blades were introduced—a sample blade attached to each of five million matchbooks. Cough drops and chewing gum have been hidden under the covers, and perfume companies have impregnated matchbooks with their odors.
Individuals, too, have tried matchbook advertising. Following World War II when many families could not find apartments, they told about their needs on matchbook covers—and got results.
Some 250,000 firms spend $100 million a year to supply America with free matches. Extensive surveys have shown them that their money is well spent. They know that less than one booklet in 1,000 is thrown away before its matches are used up, so that virtually all have a chance to win friends and influence customers 20 times. They know that three out of eight Americans can name the advertisers on the matchbooks in their pockets. And they know that an advertising campaign on matchbooks can double, triple, and quadruple sales if it is kept up long enough.
The paper match was born about 80 years ago on a potbellied stove in the office of Joshua Pusey, a Philadelphia patent attorney. One day it occurred to Pusey that the wooden matches then in general use are quite troublesome to carry in the pocket. Paper burns as well as wood, he reasoned, and doesn't take up as much space. One morning he got together the chemicals used in making match-heads and proceeded to brew them on his office stove. Then he borrowed his wife's scissors, cut 50 thin strips from a piece of cardboard, dipped them into the matchhead solution, and stapled them to what was left of the cardboard.
Since he knew what happens to inventions that are left unpatented, he sent this crude ancestor of the modern matchbook to Washington and was granted a patent on September 26, 1892—the date the matchbook industry now celebrates as its birthday.
Unable to manufacture the books himself, Pusey had to stand by while others helped themselves to his idea. Finally he raised enough money to sue the most important violator of his patent right. A few days after the lawsuit was announced, a man with a briefcase came to see him.
Pusey was not surprised. He had expected the company would attempt to buy his rights for a few dollars. The stranger said the things Pusey expected to hear. A company he represented would like to buy the patent rights. Pusey was trying to think of a polite way to say no when he suddenly realized the man was offering him a sum of $10,000.
While signing on the dotted line, the inventor remarked that for a sum like that he would be glad to drop a lawsuit any time.
"Lawsuit?" asked the stranger. "What lawsuit?"
It turned out that the firm that bought the patent rights was the then little-known Diamond Match Company. Instead of dropping the suit, Pusey was hired to continue it, and for the rest of his life he served as Diamond's patent attorney at $10,000 a year.
But when Diamond tried to make money on its investment, it found that the public was used to the more expensive wooden sticks and simply would not buy the flimsy-looking paper things. By 1894, it seemed to have come to the end of its short career.
At that point 28-year-old Henry Traute was hired by a young but hopeful matchbook firm to sell paper matches. Traute, a crack salesman, was amazed to discover that not a buyer in the country wanted to see him. He would look up old contacts and be met in the usual hearty way, but when he mentioned the word "matchbook" these interviews would come to a hasty end.
Baffled, he asked his employers, "Has anyone besides that man Pusey ever made a dime on a paper match?
Yes, he was told, one company had—but it had bought, not made, matches. This was the Mendelson Opera Company, a troupe of singers and players. After hiring a hall in New York, there had been no money left for advertising, so the manager had bought several hundred matchbooks and set the troupe to hand-lettering announcements on them.
Every bit of space—from the cover to the matchsticks themselves—was utilized. "WAIT—WE ARE COMING," they wrote, and went on about the "Pretty Girls" and "Handsome Wardrobe." "Look for the Date," they added; and, "Get Seats Early." Then they pasted pictures of their star on the outside cover. Result: the hall was packed.
When Traute heard that, he headed for a lithographer's office. The lithographer could not make out just what it was Traute wanted. An advertisement? But what should he say on the advertisement?
"Anything! Anything!" cried Traute, now far too excited to answer reasonable questions.
He grabbed a magazine from a chair and found an ad for Pabst beer. This he thrust at the lithographer, along with a matchbook cover, and told him to print the ad in matchbook size. The bewildered man made up the ad as quickly as he could, and Traute took the next train for Milwaukee—where he secured an order from the Pabst brewers for 10 million books with printed covers.
Traute next tried a tobacco firm, and he and his matchbooks were unceremoniously thrown out the door. He turned to their rivals, the producers of Bull Durham, and got an order for 30 million books.
By this time, Traute's home office was in a state of panic. "Stop!" it wired Traute. "To fill such orders, new machinery will have to be invented."
But Traute did not stop. His job was to create the demand; he left it to the home office to furnish the supply. When he finally returned to New York with orders in the billions, he found new machines whipping out the booklets at the rate of 10,000 per hour.
But when the billions of matchbooks with beautifully printed covers hit the market, the public refused to buy them. People said they were dangerous. Traute had the striking surface moved to the outside cover, at a safe distance from the matchheads, and imprinted with the now familiar "Close Cover before Striking." Still the public would not be won over, and advertisers began to cancel their orders.
Then Traute came up with another idea. He found a busy street intersection with tobacco shops on all four corners and offered the proprietor of one of them a batch of matchbooks for a small sum.
"Matchbooks!" said the man. "No thanks! I couldn't give them away."
"Have you ever tried?" asked Traute. "People like to get things for nothing. I bet you'd sell more tobacco. Why not give it a try?"
"Well, why not?" the dealer finally agreed.
Within a week he was selling twice as much tobacco as usual. Within two weeks the three other dealers on the intersection were handing out free matches. By the end of the year New Yorkers were getting matchbooks with their tobacco and cigarettes in practically every shop and inside of five years the practice had spread to the West Coast.
As paper matches gained in popularity they attracted the attention of hobbyists, and today there are over a million match-cover collectors, making matchbooks—next to stamps—the most popular collecting hobby in the country. To be well thought of by a collector, a cover must have a distinguishing imprint or picture, such as the name of a town, ship, or club, or the photo of a national monument. Also, it must be rare.
The Mendelson Opera Company probably never dreamed that giant machines two stories high would eventually pour out matchbooks, complete with advertising messages, at the rate of 60,000 an hour. It is thanks to this advertising that the average American can use thousands of matches every year without paying for them.
A graduate of Western Reserve University and the University of Chicago, Irwin Ross is a practicing psychologist specializing in the medical uses of hypnotism. He is the author of over 200 magazine articles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Salesman in Your Pocket".