I live in a surprisingly sunny place for Washington State. We have 300 days of sun a year, and almost all of the 60 rainy days come between November and February. I hate these dark, dreary, drizzly days and tend to turn on far too many lights and crank up the heat to levels that would cause the more environmentally conscious to swoon. But if I’d been a nineteenth century miss, it would not have been nearly this easy to light a house or warm a room.
We’ve talked about the candles needed to brighten spaces and fireplaces needed to warm them. What was trickier was to actually light those candles and fireplaces. Early in the century, many households were still using some form of tinderbox. These metal boxes held a stone (often flint) and a piece of metal to strike against it to make a spark. They also held some form of tinder, such as fabric or small pieces of wood. The idea was to use the spark from the flint and steel to catch a piece of tinder on fire, then use it to light the candle or fireplace.
Tinderboxes gradually gave way to more mechanical methods of lighting tinder, such as strike-a-lights, which looked like a pistol. You inserted the tinder in the cylinder and pulled the trigger and the flint inside struck a spark and ignited the tinder. There were even smaller sizes to carry in your pocket so you could use them wherever you went. The biggest problems with tinderboxes were keeping them stocked with tinder and keeping that tinder dry enough to take the spark.
Another way to spark a light was to use a chemical process. Instantaneous light boxes and phosphorous boxes used vitriol and phosphorous, respectively. A stick of wood was inserted in the chemical and then struck against a surface to create friction. No more need to strictly dry tinder! Unfortunately, the chemicals could get quite messy, not to mention dangerous, if their bottles were broken.
In 1826, John Walker of Stockton-on-Tees, England, invented friction matches. A chemist and apothecary, he coated sticks with antimony sulfide, potassium, chlorate, gum, and starch. No more need to carry bottles! No more worries about wet tinder! The sticks would burst into flame when struck against anything. There lay the benefit and the danger. Now you could start a fire anywhere, anytime, even if the matches rubbed against fabric, say the inside of your pocket!
Still, friction matches were popular enough that silversmiths and other artisans rushed to create match safes, metal boxes and cylinders to keep the matches from igniting until you were ready. The safes were still used to protect matches when safety matches came until widespread use in Britain, after 1862. Don’t you love this one from 1895 in the head of a gentleman’s cane?
Makes you appreciate that light switch on the wall, eh?