The Matchless Regency!

Literally.    Matches as we know them were not available during the years of the Regency since they had not yet been invented. Fire was not yet truly portable during the decade of the Regency, though it would move in that direction by the end of the reign of George IV. But matches would not become the inexpensive and ubiquitous fire source we now take for granted until the reign of his niece, Queen Victoria.

And yet, "matches" had been in existence since the early Middle Ages. A form of match was developed in China in 577AD by the ladies of a besieged court in need of fire for cooking. By the fourteenth century, the "match" was known in Europe, but it was rather more like what we know as a wick or a fuse. It was a chemically treated cord which burned slowly, but continuously and could be used to ignite the touch-hole of a cannon or a camp fire. Wooden splints called spunks or "matches," dipped in brimstone were one of the usual contents of the tinderbox. But none of these "matches" are comparable to the matches we use today, more precisely designated the "friction match."

So, when and where was the friction match invented and when did it come into common use?

There were a number of ingenious, but expensive and highly dangerous "instantaneous lights" developed though the late eighteenth into the early nineteenth century. In 1780, the phosphorus taper was introduced. It was tipped with phosphorus and had to be carried about in a small sealed glass tube. When the tube was cautiously broken, the taper would spontaneously ignite as soon as the phosphorus came into contact with the air. The phosphorus box was introduced in Paris in 1789, as le briquet phosphorique. This box contained a sulphur tipped "match" which was rubbed against the inside of an asbestos tube coated with phosphorus to ignite it. Needless to say, both of these "instantaneous lights" were responsible for any number of firey accidents, They were very expensive and were not widely adopted.

Even more dangerous was the chlorate or acid-dip match, invented by Chancel, in Paris, in 1805. The match head consisted of a mixture of chlorate of potash, sugar and gum arabic. To ignite the match, the head had to be dipped into a vial containing a strip of asbestos saturated in sulphuric acid, then know as "vitriol." The various components of this "match" were kept in a small tin case called the "instantaneous light-box." The chlorate match was expensive, a box of ten cost fifteen shillings in London in the early years of the nineteenth century. Its performance was very unpredictable and it was responsible for many accidental fires due to spontaneous combustion. As a result, it was never in wide use.

It was not until after the Regency was over, in 1827, that John Walker, a dispensing chemist of Stockton-on-Tees, in the northeast of England, accidentally invented the first friction match. While preparing some fire lighting mixture for himself, one of the wooden splints which he had dipped into his mixture was ignited by accidental friction upon his hearth. He called them "congreves," after Sir William Congreve, the inventor of the Congreve rocket. Though he did not patent his invention, Walker did sell them locally from his chemist shop at No. 59, High Street. His "congreves" retailed for a shilling a box, which contained eighty-four small wooden splints tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash and gum arabic. A folded sheet of glass paper was included with each box. This sheet was to be folded with the rough side in and pressed tightly together between the thumb and forefinger while one of the congreves was drawn between them to ignite it.

Samuel Jones of London patented the "Promethean" match in 1828. This can only be described as a contraption, which consisted of a short roll of paper tipped with a small quantity of a chlorate of potash and sugar mixture at one end. Into this same end was embedded a small glass globe containing a strong solution of sulphuric acid. When fire was wanted, the glass globe was broken, igniting the chlorate of potash and sugar. For some incomprehensible reason, people found it most convenient to light these "Prometheans" by gently biting the end to break the glass globe. They were expensive, but Samuel Jones did sell a goodly number of them from his London shop.

Sir Isaac Holden, a self-educated teacher, who was wont to rise at four o’clock each the morning to pursue his chemistry studies, grew weary of using a tinderbox to light his fire and his candle on cold, dark winter mornings. In 1831, he invented a new type of match, which he called the "lucifer." Similar to the congreve, the lucifer match head contained a mixture of chlorate of potash, sulphide of antimony and gum arabic, but with the addition of yellow phosphorus. Sir Isaac did not patent his invention, but he shared his formula during a lecture at the Castle Academy in Reading, where he was a teacher. One of his students wrote about the invention to his father, a London chemist, who reproduced and later patented the formula. Though they sold fairly well, it is said that the fumes created by ignition of lucifers was extremely unpleasant.

In 1830, Charles Sauria, of France, reformulated the match-head mixture, replacing the yellow phosphorus with white phosphorus. The new formula eliminated the offensive odor, but it was extremely poisonous. By 1845, Professor Anton von Schrotter had discovered amorphous or red phosphorus, which was less dangerous. This led to the invention of the true safety match by Gustaf Erik Pasch of Sweden in 1844. This match was improved by Johan Lundstrom also of Sweden, in 1855. This new process divided the chemical components of the match between the head and the striking surface, thus markedly reducing the risk of spontaneous combustion which had so plagued all of the earlier match types. In fact, Lundstrom’s match won a medal at the Paris World’s Fair of 1855. Safety friction matches were manufactured cheaply in large volume from this time forward and were available to all. Finally, fire was truly portable and relatively safe.

Ironically, the "safety" match was responsible for a significant rise in the number of smokers during the second half of the nineteenth century. Prior to the availability of the cheap and plentiful safety match in the 1850s, smoking was a primarily male pleasure, indulged in the smoking rooms of their clubs, or at their favorite coffee houses, where both smoking materials and fire were conveniently available. But with safety matches in their pockets, smoking was no longer restricted to these masculine bastions. It was convenient to light up almost anywhere. But this all happened long after the end of the Regency.

And yet, I have read several novels set in the Regency in which the hero, or some other male character, uses a friction match to light a cheroot, in a public place. Cheroots did exist during the Regency, but as you now know, the friction match did not. Nor did gentlemen smoke in public at that time. So authors, even if you find the idea of a man lighting a cheroot with a match attractive, or in some way compelling, it is historically inaccurate to have him do so in a Regency novel. If you want your characters to light their smoking materials with a match, set your story in the latter half of the Victorian era or later.

But, you ask, if matches were not readily available during the Regency, how was fire managed by the people living at that time? The star player in that story is the tinderbox, and it will be the focus of my article for next week. Stay tuned.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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