Rusty was in the hot seat, casually asking for a job as my funeral apprentice. He lived an hour south in Corvallis but would happily commute ninety minutes one way to work at my parlour in Boring, Oregon because he could listen to his Harry Potter books on tape. He was really riveted by the second installment and spent about ten minutes of our interview acting it out for me, voices and all.
I do appreciate a story teller with a flair for the avant-garde, as long as he isn’t dramatically challenged or truly unfunny. Near the dramatic end he used his rocks glass as a prop a few too many times for my taste, but overall he passed, if only marginally.
He changed the conversation from Harry Potter to his matchbook collection. I leaned forward with great interest because this was just the type of queer bits and pieces that really dill my pickle, plus my husband was busy talking to the other person at our table.
“Is it me,” I asked, “or have you noticed that not many restaurants give out matches like they did back in the day?”
He nodded and shrieks in concurrence.
We were both of an age where we could remember a garden of matches near the entrance of every dining establishment. You could snatch as many as you desired—in fact, it was encouraged. I used to collect matchbooks from everyplace I went, but now, sadly, its hand sanitizer, soiled breath mints and toothpicks for offer.
Matchbooks make for such compact gratis memorabilia. It’s better than a business card, and they are several times more useful. Matchbook covers were the most popular advertising form for over 40 years. Advertisers used match covers to promote every aspect of Americana including airlines, cigarettes, fraternal organizations and wars. Businesses, products and services, from A to Z, used matchbooks to get the word out.
So what if I live in a state where smoking is banned from inside the restaurants — there should still be matches I say. I like the smell of sulfur. I like to strike a match, then blow it out and smell the smoke.And so what if I don’t smoke, I still want matches. I like free stuff.
Frugal Rusty then asked if I’d like another ‘free’ drink. Clever, he was. With a straight face, Rusty ordered a Rusty Nail, and then he got down to business because apparently he thought we were seriously having an interview…while he was drinking.
He shared with me that his matchbook collection spanned forty years, and he loved the art on the packaging. I asked if he displayed them in a giant brandy snifter on his coffee table, and he told me that I was stuck in the Seventies. He professed the new method of matchbook display was to group them by subject and slip them into plastic sleeves in special binders, or in shadowboxes.
Joshua Pusey invented book matches in 1889. He was a well-known lawyer in Pennsylvania before the turn of the century. He smoked cigars. Wikipedia tells me that one day he was invited to a dinner party by the Mayor of Philadelphia. He dressed in his best clothes, and all was on track except for one thing. The big box of wooden kitchen matches he was carrying to light his cigars stuck out of his vest so much that he felt embarrassed. Why did matches have to be so bulky, he pondered? Why couldn’t they be crafted out of paper instead?
Unlike most adolescent collections (bottle caps, stamps, baseball cards) that end up in moldy basements, my sassy collection has been displayed proudly in a few of my residences–and not always casually on the coffee table or bath tub ledge. I schooled Rusty that according to the matchbook collecting societies, a proper display should have matches that have been removed, and strikers that have been unused.
I have two personal favorites from my brandy snifters. One is the colorful book of matches from the Texas and Pacific Railway Company (known as the T&P). The art is super cool, plus I have a chink of a memento from a railroad that was created by federal charter in 1871 with the purpose of building a southern transcontinental railroad between Marshall, Texas, and San Diego, California. And I love to fondle my box of strikes from Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel is special ‘cause it’s rumored to be the place that likely invented the succulent Reuben.
Best, they’re free — not even requiring patronage — and there are always new places to eat and drink. Matchbooks are small, geographical snapshots, relics, conjuring memories and melancholy; they light our fire. In a pinch, they might even save a life. I dig matchboxes so much I did the ultra-tacky thing and had them as ceremony favors at my wedding reception. Every guest’s plate was graced with a tiny white box which resembled a family tombstone, complete with our names and wedding date. We gauchely emblazoned it with the epitaph “Til Death Do Us Part.”
Rusty interjects that his parents’ joke was that he was “a twig on the matchbook branch of the family tree.” His father and uncles had shopping bags full of matchbooks in their closets to prove that they were loony enough to be committed. I suddenly wanted to meet them.
I had to ask Rusty if they worried about the dangers of fire. Or spontaneous combustion? I would have hired him if he zinged me with a clever close-cover-before-striking joke.