Despite Many Restaurants Closing, Their Signature Matchbooks Take on a New Purpose

The cultural adaptability of a 128-year-old tradition and how it's evolving.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Back in another version of my life, I moved to a glossy two-bedroom in Park Slope, after eight years spent in a beat-up, one-bedroom in Astoria. But before I did that, I hired an organizer, to help me reduce the contents of my world. In the throes of that fervor, I tossed away a lot of ephemera that I have mostly forgotten about, and don’t much miss. One thing I do pine for, though -- especially now -- is my old matchbook collection, which I amassed over a long career as a server, sommelier, and diner in restaurants. 

Matchbooks, when I began collecting them, were commonplace in restaurants. In 2002, when I got my first job waiting tables, you could still smoke in restaurants, after all. Way back then, the matchbook was part token, part function; it was intertwined in the necessary hospitality of the space. Matchbooks were no different, say, than forks or knives (though indisputably more tactile and fun).

Matches date back to 1827. Their inventor, British chemist John Walker, originally marketed them as “Lucifers.” A patent attorney named Joshua Pusey later created the more common cardboard matches in 1892, and his patent was subsequently sold to the Diamond Match Company. A few years after that, Henry C. Traute, an enterprising sales representative, collaborated with Pabst Blue Ribbon to promote the Wisconsin beer on a matchbook, setting the stage for a restaurant merger.

restaurant matches
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An easy advertising vehicle for nearly all of the 20th century, matchbooks are adaptable “because they’re inexpensive, the lead time on them is pretty quick, and you can do so much with the printing on the match cover itself,” says Julia Bartlett, Vice President of Operations for the 83-year-old company D.D. Bean & Sons Co., the last remaining matchbook manufacturer in the United States. A book of matches could, in fact, serve multiple purposes at once: provide a light to a smoker; a blank space for a note or an errant phone number; and a memory of a place you loved wholly.

“Back then, smokers drank more and stayed later,” remembers Jen Peterman, a 30-year restaurant veteran and current server at New York’s Porter House Bar & Grill in the Time Warner Center. “It was a party. It was a late-night hangout. The matchbook was blank and white on the inside so you could write down a number of a person that was flirting with you.” 

Smoking bans were enacted countrywide in the early 2000s, creating the initial effect of curbing match demand. But then a resurgence in the matchbook market occurred, due, Bartlett said, to the “vintage novelty” of matchbooks, and to the realization by restaurant owners that “people will take them home.” The matchbook, as it turns out, has a long shelf life; it takes the restaurant with it when it goes. “It’s not a business card; it’s a little piece of the house that they can have in a pinch,” Peterman says. “I imagine a situation where you're camping or out somewhere and some situation calls for a match, one searches and searches and a light bulb goes off and that person says, ‘Oh, Porter House matches to the rescue!’”

bar sardine
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As it turns out, matchbook collectors (the kind that did not discard their books in fits of organizational fury) are everywhere, and they view their collections as ways to connect with the places they’ve visited. Collecting matchbooks is tantamount to collecting postcards from vacation destinations. Atlanta-based author and writer Malika Bowling has collected hundreds of matchbooks since the 1990s. “I loved the idea of eating at different restaurants. I would just grab a matchbook from everywhere we went as a memento,” she says. “For me, it was a way to keep a list of places I aspired to visit, and remember those I’d been to.”

Bowling views the matchbook as an item that is “more sophisticated” than either a business card or a pen. Now, in the pale light of the pandemic, she has noticed something else, too. “I spent a weekend cleaning out my office and went through my match collection,” she says. “I had forgotten the many places I’ve collected matches from. It made me particularly sad, because I fear that many independent restaurants will not make it through to the other side of this pandemic.” Her collection, in this one way, has become a reminder of this year’s high stakes.

In another way, though, the matchbook speaks to an eternal optimism, both in the match industry and in the restaurant industry as a whole. The true utility of matches, after all, is long gone. The disposable lighter could have overtaken the match -- and, actually, it already has. Commodity matches (the white books without labels that you get for free, for instance, at convenience stores) are becoming obsolete. But the fact that the match industry still exists at all speaks to a certain intangible need for matches. Why have them? Yet we do. Matches -- matchbooks -- are more, maybe, than what they do.

restaurant matchbooks
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

“We’re a very nostalgic company. That’s part of our culture. We see ourselves as stewards of the industry, not just as the last man standing,” Bartlett says of her company. Except that they are the last man standing, and that’s important, because even in a pandemic, 25 percent of D.D. Bean & Sons Co.’s customers are still placing orders, and others are promising not to cut out matchbooks when their advertising budgets return.

“Restaurants, they’re funny. Matches in other segments, you compete with apparel, for example, pens, promotional products like that. But in restaurants, you’re not going to give somebody a hat, when they leave,” Bartlett says. “A match, it’s perfect.” Hold a book in your hand, chance upon art from a restaurant -- bygone or still-standing -- and you’re bound to agree: a matchbook is, indeed, a perfect token of time and place, small enough to take with you when you go.

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Hannah Selinger is a contributor to Thrillist.