Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Strike a light!

By Mike Rendell

                  Fairfax snuff box 1 001

Does your Regency hero pose nonchalantly by the window, pull out a cheroot, and light it with a match struck against the rough stone surface of the mullion window through which he gazes at his beloved? If so, you may have to re-think the scene, because striking a match was not known until a British invention in the 1827.

Up until then your hero would have taken a taper from a lit fire, or, if no fire burned in the grate, would have had to resort to using a tinderbox. And that meant several minutes of messing around getting very frustrated and probably grazing his gorgeous knuckles...

My family still have a couple of tinderboxes belonging to my Georgian ancestors. One of my forebears was called Richard Fairfax, and his box is shown above. It is dated 1812 and I suspect was one of many thousands of steel, hinged, tinderboxes churned out by metal workers in Birmingham in the reign of George III. They are usually around five inches long and just under an inch deep.

It made me think - how were the tinderboxes used, and when did congreves/vestas/lucifers/ matches come into vogue?


The tinderbox usually  contained at least three items - a flint, a firesteel  (like the one above) and a piece of tinder (typically charcloth). It might also contain  "matchsticks," made of deal dipped in  brimstone, which would be lit from the charcloth, and  a damper (to extinguish the charcloth after it had been used).

The charcloth was made by scorching a piece of material so that it was easy to ignite. An old piece of linen would be held by tongs close to the flames until it blackened. It would then be allowed to burn for a fraction of time before being extinguished, and popped into the box for future use. If charred cloth was not available then straw might be used or even, or if you were French, a thin slice of a mushroom known as 'amadou' dipped in saltpetre. In England it was known as "horse’s hoof fungus"  because of its shape.

On 'A Woodsrunner's Diary' site here I came across this interesting diagram showing how the firesteel was held, rather like a knuckle-duster:

The handle in the centre was attached to the damper. To use the tinderbox the damper was removed, and repeated downward strikes of the firesteel against the flint would send a shower of sparks down on to the charcloth. After two or three minutes, with many attempts and often with knuckles knocked red-raw from being caught on the flint , the cloth would smoulder, and be blown gently into life; the flame would be transferred to the matchstick (known as a 'punk' or sometimes a 'spunk) which would then flare into life; from there the flame could be transferred either to a candle, or to the hearth to light the kindling wood. Voila!

The Woodsrunner site also shows the inside of a tinderbox of a very similar size and shape to my family one shown earlier:


The tinderbox had been in use for hundreds of years with very few modification. When my ancestor bought his in 1812 he would have little thought that it would become obsolete within a matter of only a few years. 

In  1827 a Stockton on Tees chemist called John Walker began experimenting with chemicals which would burst into flames. According to Wikipedia he came up with the idea of "wooden splints or sticks of cardboard coated with sulphur  and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash and gum, the sulphur serving to communicate the flame to the wood." At first Walker simply called them 'friction lights'. He declined to apply for a patent, and his involvement in the development of the friction match only really became apparent after his death in 1859.

His price for a box of 50 matches was a shilling, and each box came with a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it. Walker named the matches Congreves in honour of the inventor and rocket pioneer Sir William Congreve. This image, courtesy of Diomedia, appears ©of the Science Museum:

Congreve matches courtesy of diomedia (© Science Museum).

Despite selling his  first Congreves in April 1827, credit for the invention was claimed by Samuel Jones, a Londoner who copied Walker's ideas to the letter and who launched his own Lucifers in 1829. Others came up with their own ingredients for "safety" friction matches, and suddenly fire was portable, instant and safe. All those tinderboxes became museum objects almost overnight...

Mike Rendell is the author of the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman  and of a book on Bristol Blue Glass. He lectures on all-things-Georgian as well as operating a blog on life in the Eighteenth Century here.


  1. This was so interesting. What a lot of trouble to go to just to light a cheroot in those days. I'm sure, too, that the charwomen lighting the morning fire were very grateful for the invention of matches.

  2. Yes, we have to be careful how we imagine such a "simple" activity as creating fire. http://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2009/01/09/the-tinderbox-the-primary-regency-fire-source/ and http://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2009/01/02/the-matchless-regency/ (2009 posts) went into even more detail!

  3. Fascinating pst! You know, I remember Poul Anderson's The High Crusade, in which mediaeval villagers take over an alien spaceship. It doesn't take them long to get the hang of it, because with all the complex things they have to do even to light a fire, all this button pushing is child's play!

  4. Fire and Brimstone! (and, who would have thought, mushrooms. Mushrooms? It never fails to amaze me, the myriad uses things can be put to.) One can understand why snuff became so popular - no fiddling about to get one's nicotine hit. Thank you Mike for such an entertaining and informative post.

  5. Hi Mike. Fascinating article and relevant to my own fiction.
    When you say the tinder boxes become museum pieces 'overnight' did that apply across all stratas of society? In other words, were matches cheap enough and so much more convenient that everyone started using them or did the poor (and very poor) continue with their tinderboxes for a few generations? I'm asking because my alternate history novel is partly set in a crofting community on the Isle of Skye in 1860 and I would love the convenience of matches when my MC lights up his pipe.

  6. Fascinating article. Thank you!

  7. I have no knowledge of the Scottish crofters who, I suspect, were a law unto themselves! But abrasive matches, quickly followed by numerous other copy-cats, and finally the safety match, meant that tinderboxes went out of fashion remarkably quickly. I have an old matchbox, with wax matches, and a sort of woven length of rope which you set alight, and could them pass around as a glowing ember from which others could light their cigarettes.

  8. Using flint and steel isn't as tricky as you might think, practice is the key, plus people practiced fire management like banking or your fire overnight to save relighting. Matches ,the striking variety, were regarded as parlour tricks for a long time as everyone knew how to use flint and steel, plus a steel would last a lifetime, flint is laying around free and charcloth is recycled from worn out cloth. Matches need new one every time. Tongs were handy for lighting your pipe, just grab an emberand puff.

  9. I apologise for the gibberish, a combination of big fingers, teeny phone keyboard and an over zealous autofill/correct.

  10. Interesting, although I must admit I haven't come across any tinderboxes later than the 1840's. But then, I come from a family of arsonists so matches were always handy.....

  11. This sounds like boasting but it's more sad historian experimenting/affectation but using punk touchwood for tinder and a flint and steel I used to be able to light a ciggy as quickly as using a zippo.

  12. There are many mistakes in this article, but I will not try to correct them here. You need to do more research. Thank you for linking to my blog, but I would prefer it if you asked permission to use my copyright images beforehand.

  13. I am extremely sorry for the discourtesy in not getting your prior approval - my apologies. We live and learn.

  14. I have an antique, ornate silver box like the one in the last picture. I didn't even know what it was for, I just bought it at a flea market because I thought it was neat. So now I know.


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