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Matchbox museum offers small view of big history

A Thai boy’s fascination with collecting the tiny art on matchboxes grew into a 70-year passion now open to the public.

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“There is an endless variety of [old] matchbox labels far in excess of stamps,” says Steven Smith, president of the world’s oldest matchbox club, the British Matchbox Label and Booklet Society. “It’s a never-ending challenge just to get every label [ever] produced in a single country.”

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Fortunately for phillumenists, collectible labels are a lot cheaper than stamps. Last year at an eBay auction Mr. Smith – who became a collector at age 7 while trawling for unusual matchboxes discarded by sailors and holidaymakers in his native Norwich, England – bought what he thinks is the most expensive label ever: an American piece from around 1870. He paid a record $7,500 for it (which would be a relatively modest sum for a rare stamp). As with stamps, Smith explains, a matchbox label’s value is not just in its beauty but its rarity and vintage.

Historical association also matters. Matches were once ubiquitous, and their labels reflected the world around them –­ from fashionable society salons in London to rustic homes with a cooking pot in China or India.

“Matchbox labels are windows onto the past, reflecting a bygone era’s styles, trends, and concerns,” Chuan says. “You can study a country’s history just by looking at old matchboxes.”

As examples, he unearths items from a century ago celebrating Thailand’s first steam engine railway and Bangkok’s tram. From another pile, he produces some yellowed labels bearing slogans by a World War II-era dictator, who used matchboxes as a medium for propaganda.

A contemporary matchbook, meanwhile, boasts sepias of a Thai prince (Chulalongkorn’s grandson) and his foreign-born wife printed on its two sides. He postulates that the unique collector’s item, made for an exclusive banquet at the palace, was saved for posterity by a souvenir-hunting courtier.

Other labels from the 1950s extol rural life in bucolic images, plug American Zenith television sets to wealthy urbanites, or laud the arrival of modern gas stations. By the 1980s, many Thai matchboxes wooed tourists with promotional images of picturesque landscapes.

Among Chuan’s many foreign acquisitions, some exhibits depict Chairman Mao in a series of adulatory iconography; show views of the Kremlin from Soviet-era matches for the proletariat; or feature Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn, Jean Harlow, and other silent-movie stars on a Finnish set.

Yet such “repositories of knowledge and memory,” as Chuan puts it, are becoming a thing of the past.
Except for remote rural areas in the developing world, disposable lighters and electronic ignition have usurped the role of once-indispensable matches. Match manufacturing isn’t what it used to be, and that bodes ill for a proud tradition of collecting.

“Sad to say we’re in decline,” laments Smith, a close friend of Chuan. “Most collectors are in their 70s and few young people are interested in old matchboxes.”

When one of the last Thai match mills went out of business recently, Chuan bought up its entire inventory – not just 100,000 plastic-wrapped labels, but bulky canvas bales of headless matchsticks, too. He even acquired the propeller of the factory’s longboat once used for servicing households along Bangkok’s canals.

A mile or so away from Chuan’s museum, another multistory home he owns serves as a warehouse for these industry castoffs, while he himself lives in a simple cinderblock bungalow next door.

“We couldn’t have built modern civilization without matches,” the avid collector explains as he putters around in search of further mementos to show off. “I want to preserve their importance for future generations.”