by Mark Tully

Learning to control fire was perhaps man's greatest achievement. It allowed him to live in places formerly uninhabitable, to cook his food, change his landscape, and make weapons. The ability to create fire whenever and wherever it was needed was essential to the advancement of technology, and it could be argued that the invention of matches marked the birth of modern society.

Several kinds of matches were available prior to the 18th-century. Slow match consisted of a length of hemp cord soaked in a solution of saltpeter and lime water. It was designed to burn at a rate of one foot per hour and was commonly used to light grenades and fire the touch holes of artillery pieces. Quick match consisted of a cotton wick impregnated with saltpeter or coated with gum and mealed powder. It as designed to burn very quickly and acted as a fuse.

Striking matches originated in 1680 when Geoffrey Hawkwitz and Robert Boyle invented the first friction match. Unfortunately, this device was so dangerous and costly that it was considered impractical and never saw widespread use.

The French invented a type of match called a "phosphoric candle" in 1780. It consisted of an air tight sealed glass tube containing a strip of paper soaked with a special type of phosphorous. The phosphorous reacted with oxygen, so when the glass was broken the paper burst into flame. Phosphoric candles were much too expensive for every-day use and very dangerous ­ they were considered more of a novelty than a practical fire-starting tool.

But matches were commonly available in the 18th-century.

The most practical early match was called a spunk. Spunks were invented in about 1632, and were very similar to our everyday "kitchen" matches. In England, street criers would often make and sell these spunks to earn their meager living. Spunks consisted of a short wood or paper splint that had been coated with wax and dipped in sulfur. They came singly or in sheets and were set alight by placing them in a tinder box and striking sparks onto them with a flint and steel. The sulfur would catch the spark, flare up, and start the wax-impregnated wooden splint burning ­ basically the same principal employed in "modern" matches. Spunks were often dipped on both ends, so they could get two lights out of one match.

18th-century matches are very easy to make. Simply get some sulphur from the local drug store, cut up some wooden splints, dip them in melted wax (be careful ­ molten wax is VERY flammable), then, while still wet, roll them in the sulphur. I have made a bunch of these, but as yet I have been unable to have one catch a spark and burst into flame (I'm told I bought the wrong type of sulphur). If anyone wants to try this and make a report of their findings I would be happy to hear from you.

So now you ask yourself: "Gee, can I use modern striking matches in camp?"


The predecessor of the modern striking match was called a "congreve" and was not invented until 1827. It consisted of a three-inch long splint of wood with a tip made of antimony sulfide, chlorate of potash, gum arabic and starch. When drawn against a piece of sandpaper, a series of small explosions ensued, which would shower the user with sparks and debris and ­ sometimes ­ start the wooden splint burning.

Strike-anywhere matches were first developed by John Walker and Samuel Jones in England in the early 1830's, and "safety matches" were not invented until 1844 ­ both much too late to be appropriate for use in our 18th-century camp.

Incidentally, the phosphorous fumes from these early striking matches were extremely toxic. By 1900 enough fatalities had occurred from the use of matches that the government was forced to tax and regulate them ­ to the point that the match industry was all but extinguished (pun intended). In 1911 the non-toxic French formula for matches was finally adapted to work in the North-American climate, and matches continue to be a cheap, safe, fast way to start fires even today (just not in the 18th-century camp).


The Oxford English Dictionary

"The Match Girl", from The Criers and Hawkers of London, Engravings and Drawings by Marcellus Laroon [ca. 1687] Edited, with an Introduction and Commentary, by Sean Shesgreen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1990 [Kohler Art Library, UW WISC. Elvejum]

Before you light that fire in front of your camp this season, read the article on campfire safety!