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Time To Be In Awe Of Japanese Matchbook Art From The 1920s

During the 1920s and 1930s, matchboxes in Japan served as compact canvases, showcasing enticing glimpses of a sophisticated, modern lifestyle replete with dimly lit bars, elegantly coiffed hair, and provocative depictions of women intertwined around oversized wine goblets. Crafted using traditional woodblock techniques, these artworks bore the imprint of both Bauhaus and Expressionist influences, creating a captivating fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics.

While matches are now considered commonplace and widely available, the journey to reliably and safely producing fire was far from simple. The origins of matchsticks trace back to 577 AD in China when maids of the imperial court, facing a shortage of tinder for cooking and heating during the siege of the Kingdom of Qi, began coating small pieces of pinewood with sulfur. These early matchsticks, however, lacked the ability to self-ignite. For millennia, humans grappled with the challenge of instant fire production without success.

It wasn't until 1827 in London that John Walker achieved a breakthrough by inventing the first friction matches. These matches were tipped with a mixture of sulfide and potassium chlorate, emitting an unpleasant odor and carrying the risk of spontaneous combustion when rubbed together. Eventually, sulfur was replaced by white phosphorus, which, while odorless, proved to be even more problematic due to its high toxicity, capable of causing severe harm, including facial disfigurement.

In 1847, Austrian chemist Anton Schrötter made a crucial discovery: by heating white phosphorous to 300 °C (572 °F) in an iron pot, it transformed into red phosphorous, eliminating the harmful consequences associated with chronic inhalation, such as bone disorders. Shortly thereafter, Swedish chemistry professor Gustav Erik Pash introduced the safety match, which led to Sweden's dominance in the European match industry.

Interestingly, these advancements in match production remained unknown to Japan, a country that had remained closed off from the Western world since the 1600s. However, Japan's isolation came to an end in 1853 when Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay with a fleet of warships, compelling Japan to re-engage with the global community after two centuries of seclusion.

Japan's rapid modernization extended beyond its industrial sector. The feudal era came to an end, and within a mere two decades, the samurai class was abolished. With Japanese individuals venturing to the Western world, they brought back elements of fashion, music, film, art, as well as the contemporary debates and issues of the time.

By the 1920s, Japan had aligned itself with the ongoing developments in the Western world. "Moga" (modern girls), akin to flappers, and "Mobo" (modern boys), engaged in activities such as shopping at department stores, congregating at cafés, and frequenting smoky bars. In an effort to attract patrons, these modern entertainment establishments naturally turned to the practice of advertising on matchboxes.

The first recorded instance of matchbook advertising occurred in 1895, when the Mendelsohn Opera Company in New York acquired a hundred blank matchbooks to creatively promote their upcoming production. Over the course of several days, the company meticulously adorned the matchbooks with photographs of their star performers and handcrafted advertising copy, enticing potential patrons with the promise of "A cyclone of fun — pretty girls — handsome wardrobe – get seats early."

This marketing ploy proved to be remarkably successful, and by 1902, the Pabst Brewing Company was commissioning a staggering 10 million matchbooks from Diamond Match for the purpose of promoting their Blue Ribbon Beer.

This marketing ploy proved to be remarkably successful, and by 1902, the Pabst Brewing Company was commissioning a staggering 10 million matchbooks from Diamond Match for the purpose of promoting their Blue Ribbon Beer.

In Japan, matchbox designs were created through the traditional woodblock printing method, reminiscent of the Ukiyo-e style. However, due to the limited space available on these tiny matchbox labels, intricate designs were impractical. The simplicity of Bauhaus aesthetics and the efficiency of constructivist typography were an ideal match for these labels, catering to a contemporary clientele. It's worth noting that the flat planes, vibrant colours, asymmetry, and the strategic use of negative space associated with Bauhaus and modern art had originally originated in Japanese design.

With matchbox labels, modernist art came full circle back to Japan, and today, a single cover from the 1920s can command a price of over $50 each.


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