The Tinderbox – The Primary Regency Fire Source

Last week, I wrote about the history of the development of the friction match in the years surrounding the Regency. If you have read that article, you will remember that there were a few innovative, expensive and rather dangerous match types available during those years. With the exception of a few wealthy and adventurous early adopters, these experimental matches were not widely used during the Regency. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the friction match was in general circulation.

But fire was necessary to everyone, as it was the source of both light and heat. So how did most people manage fire during the Regency?

In most households, as had been the practice since the Middle Ages, the kitchen fire was kept burning around the clock. At night it was banked and covered with a metal hood pierced with many small holes, called the curfew, a corruption of the French couvre-feu, meaning "fire cover." In many medieval villages a bell rang each night to remind its residents to cover their fires. The practice of bell-ringing had died out by the Regency, even in the smaller villages of England. But fires were still banked and covered each night in every home. Each morning someone would remove the cover and typically with the use of bellows, would blow fresh life into the smoldering embers, adding fuel and renewing the fire for the coming day.

But fire was often needed throughout out the house during the course of a day. It was not always convenient to have to dash to the kitchen hearth for a light. In many homes, a tinderbox was kept on each mantlepiece, readily at hand should a fire be needed. A thoroughly utilitarian domestic appliance, a tinderbox might be kept out of sight in an elegant town home or an opulent country mansion, except, perhaps, for those made of brass or silver. But a simple tin tinderbox was a common feature of modest houses and cottages.

A tinderbox was a circular metal box, most commonly of tin, though there were some which were made of steel, brass, or occassionally, of silver. It was typically between four to five inches in diameter, and between one to two inches high. Its circular lid fit tightly on the box, like a lid on a modern-day cannister. The tight fit was necessary since it was important to keep the tinder contained in the box dry. After 1800, most tinderboxes had a candle socket attached to the center of the lid. Many tinderboxes also had a small loop handle attached at the side, which would allow the closed box to double as a convenient candle holder. The tinder was kept in the very bottom of the box, under a metal disk of the same diameter as the box, often with a small handle. This disk was the damper and was used to extinguish the tinder once its sparks had served their purpose. Resting atop the damper in the box would be the steel striker and the flint nodule which would be stuck against one another to create the sparks which would ignite the tinder. Above those implements would be stored the "matches" or spunks, which were made of deal dipped in brimstone. But these matches were nothing like the friction matches yet to be invented. They were simply implements of fire transfer.

Just what was the "tinder" which was kept in the tinderbox? The most favored tinder material during the Regency was scorched linen. Old handkerchiefs, sections of worn sheets and undergarments were carefully saved for this purpose. The old cloth was held close to the fire with a pair of tongs, where it was allowed to become very dry. Then, it was brought into to the fire where it was allowed to catch fire and burn briefly. The tinderbox was prepared in advance by emptying it of all its contents. The burning linen was dropped into the bottom of the tinderbox and was quickly extinguished by covering it with the mental damper disk. The other contents of the tinderbox would be placed on top of the damper disk and the lid would be placed securely back on the box. It was important that the tinder be kept dry so that it would ignite quickly when the sparks generated by the steel and flint fell upon it. Tinder would have to be replenished regularly, as it was constantly consumed in the making of fire. In great houses, this was the responsibility of the servants, in a cottage, it fell to the housewife to ensure a steady tinder supply.

There were other types of tinder which were available during the Regency. Hemp from old frayed rope seems to have been popular with sailors and others who had rope at hand. Feathers, dried grasses and leaves, or wood shavings, might be used in a pinch, if they were available. On the Continent, another type of tinder was used, a species of fungus sometimes sold as "German tinder." In France it was known as amadou, and was called "horse’s hoof" fungus in England, because of its shape. It was a species of mushroom which grew on mature trees. Because of its spongy nature, it was also popular with surgeons for the arrest of hemorrhages. When used as tinder, the amadou was cut into thin slices, usually pounded flat, then saturated in a solution of saltpeter (nitrate of potassium) and water and allowed to dry. It was then ready for use. Amadou was a very effective tinder which was portable, easily kept dry, and was quick to ignite. But this form of tinder was not commonly used England during the wars against Napoleon, probably because it was a product of France. It seems the English were eager for French silks and brandy, so much so they would resort to smuggling. But not so with French tinder.

There was another form of tinder which was in use during the Regency, but it was not typically kept in tinderboxes. It was called "touch-paper" and was most commonly carried by country men. Touch-paper was made very much like amadou. A soft, thin paper was soaked in a solution of saltpeter and water and allowed to dry. It could then be carried in a pocket, often wrapped in a bit of waterproof oil cloth. This portable tinder was used by men who were in need of a fire while away from home. They would also typically be carrying a small flint and would strike that against the back of their knife to ignite the touch paper. Since paper at this time was made from linen rags, touch paper had essentially the same composition as the scorched linen used as tinder in many tinderboxes.

Now, back to the tinderbox. The linen has been scorched and covered with the damper. On top of that is the steel and the flint. The steel, called the "strike-a-light," was often made of an old file which had been bent into a U-shape for an improved grip while striking against the flint. The flint might be from an old flintlock gun, but a flint nodule was preferred, if one was available. A flint nodule tended to strike more and hotter sparks, thus igniting the tinder more quickly. The flint actually shaves tiny bits of metal off the steel when they are struck together, which is the source of the hot sparks they generate.

Along with steel and the flint, the brimstone matches were also stored in the tinderbox. So, if they had matches, why did they even need a tinderbox? Because these were not friction matches which would ignite when struck against a rough surface. They were simply short splints of deal, a hard pine wood, with pointed ends which were used to transfer the newly made fire from the tinder to the candle or hearth. Each end was dipped into brimstone, what we know today as sulphur. Like the tinder, these matches could be made at home, but they had also become a cottage industry by the Regency. The necessary materials were very inexpensive, so poor women in villages and cities often made matches to supplement their meager income. They would send their children, usually their daughters, out to sell these home-made matches on the street. These were the first "match girls." Gypsies also included matches among the wares they sold, in the early nineteenth century the price was five bundles for a penny. It was this type of match which the chemist, John Walker, was making for himself when he discovered that his formula would ignite by friction alone.

Now we know the contents of a typical tinderbox of the Regency. But how were these various items used together to make fire? First, everything was removed from the tinderbox except the tinder. Then, the steel was taken in one hand, the flint in the other. A right-handed person would typically hold the steel in the right hand and the flint in the left. The steel was held so that its U-shape was perpendicular, with the thicker side on the outside of the knuckles. The steel was held over the tinder in the tinderbox while the flint was struck against it. The steel was struck repeatedly by the flint, the intent to shower sparks onto the tinder. This was not always easy and required a great deal of skill and patience to direct the sparks onto the tinder and not elsewhere. Eventually, a spark or two would ignite the tinder. At this point, the fire must be encouraged by fanning with a few soft, steady breaths. Once the tinder was burning steadily, the tip of a sulphur match was applied to it. The sulphur would ignite in a blue flame, which could be applied to a candle for light, or to a taper or paper spill, which was then used to light the tinder of a fire laid on the hearth. As soon as the match had been successfully ignited, the damper was put back into the tinderbox to snuff out the tinder so that it could be used again. The other items were all put back into the tinderbox, and the lid was replaced.

During the seventeenth century, the first tinder pistols were developed. Guns at that time used flint to ignite the power in the pan and thus fire the bullet, so it was no great leap to create a pistol which was intended to start fires. In fact, many of these guns were converted from functioning pistols to tinder pistols by gunsmiths. Tinder pistols were still available during the Regency, but by then they had become more sophisticated. Many had sulpher matches, extra tinder and even a candle incorporated into their design, in addition to the flint and steel. These tinder pistols were very expensive and were most commonly owned by the very wealthy who enjoyed ingenious devices. They were not much easier to use than a regular tinderbox, but they did have that elusive cool factor.

As noted above, country men had an alternative to the tinderbox, as they often carried touch-paper and a flint as they went about their outdoor activities. Most country men also carried a knife, which could be used in place of a steel with the flint to strike sparks to ignite the touch-paper if they needed a fire while away from home. Touch-paper would ignite fairly easily, but it would also burn slowly and steadily. Thus, there was no need of a match. The touch-paper itself could be used to transfer the nascent fire to where ever it was needed. Touch-paper also had the benficial feature that it was not prone to spontaneous combustion. It required an ingnition source, such as the sparks from the flint and steel to produce flame. In daylight, it could also be ignited by the use of a magnifying glass or similar lens which would focus the rays of the sun on it surface.

Now that you know the effort required from those who lived during the Regency, and the centuries which preceded it, to start a fire, you can easily understand why the invention of the friction match was so incredibly important. Imagine rising on a cold, dark, winter morning to find that your kitchen fire had died during the night. You would have to fumble in the dark to find the tinderbox, grasp the cold flint and steel and struggle to strike enough sparks to ignite the tinder in the box. Gently you would blow on the tinder till the smoldering tinder was burning strongly enough that you could ignite a sulphur match. You would then use the match to light a candle, damper the tinder and then use your candle to relight your kitchen fire. Imagine how convenient a friction match would be after the drawn-out procedure of making fire with a tinderbox. With a friction match, a simple strike and you instantly had fire at your fingertips.

As I pointed out in my previous article on matches, the seeming miracle of the friction match was unknown during the Regency. Making fire was a complicated and painstaking process during that decade. From now on, when you read about a character striking a match to light a candle, a cheroot or a fire in a Regency novel, you will know your author has not done their research. Perhaps there is a certain attractive manly factor when a man lights a friction match, but knowing how much skill and patience is necessary to successfully start a fire using a tinderbox, I must admit that I find a man who can do that efficiently much more sexy than one who simply strikes a match.


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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10 Responses to The Tinderbox – The Primary Regency Fire Source

  1. Pingback: Fireplace Furniture:   Furnishing the Focus of the Regency Room | The Regency Redingote

  2. Azy says:

    I got ta have me a tinder pistol! That’d be the talk of the cook-out! Glad I read this. That’s on my wish list. Hahaha!

    Take care,

  3. Le Loup says:

    Unfortunately not all correct, you are confused between tinder & kindling. Tinder smoulders, it does not flame. You strike the flint in the steel, not the steel on the flint. You need the sparks to go down, not up. With the deepest of respect, may I suggest you visit my video channel if you wish to learn more:
    or my blog at:
    Sincere regards, Keith.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. It is curious that your remarks are pretty much the exact opposite of the information I found in eighteenth and nineteenth century sources. It would appear that the technology of the tinderbox has not yet stopped evolving.



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  5. Kevin. says:

    Sometimes I use local quartz, chaga, paper/white birch bark, fatwood, charred punkwood or cloth with a borken file/forged striker when camping. The charred cloth is placed on top of the quartz which in turn is struck by the carbon steel striker. The ignited charcloth is placed inside a jute bundle and blown into flames. The tinder box has been replaced by an Altoids tin but is alive and well.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for sharing! Glad to know there are still folks in the world who know how to make fire the old-fashioned way.

      I would never have thought of an Altoid tin as a tinderbox, but certainly the use of that which solves a problem harks back to our ancestors.

      Happy Camping!



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  8. amyquinton says:

    Reblogged this on Amy Quinton and commented:
    Fascinating reading about the process of starting a fire in Regency times.

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