A hundred years ago, cigar smokers lived with the very real danger of spontaneously combusting – if they had a few strike-anywhere matches dancing around their pockets.
Yes, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but those early short matches (also known as vestas) had the notorious habit of catching on fire when rubbed against each other.
This is why Vesta Cases, or pocket matchsafes, were so popular between 1890 and 1920 (the period of time when unreliable matches were produced). Named after the Roman deity of fire and the hearth, Vesta, the simple, portable boxes kept matches (and the carrier) safe and usually included a ribbed surface for the smoker to strike and ignite a match with.
Produced throughout the years in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and materials, antique matchsafes are now a sought-after collector's item. We've gathered a few examples from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum for our customers, readers, and fans to enjoy.
Images and descriptions used with permission (Smithsonian Open Access) from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum website.
Antique Matchsafe Collection Gallery
In the form of a short cigar butt, with leaves defined on realistically cast body in gold, the tip with ashes in silver metal. Tip hinged at side and opens as lid. Tip also likely intended as striker.
"Henry Clay" Cigar Box
Rectangular, in the form of a cigar box, with simulated, incised wood grain, inscribed in black enamel on top, resembling oval stamp, "La Flor de Henry Clay, Julianalvz., Habana". On left in polychrome enamel, with portrait medallion and foliage, is simulated label that wraps from edge of top surface down over left side, inscribed "Henry Clay - Regalia de Alvarez y González". Lid on right side. Striker in recessed groove on lid.
"Smoke Up & Up Fumar Cigars"
Rectangular, curved sides, snuff box style container, featuring black printed decoration on gold ground, cover inscribed "Smoke Up and Up Fumar Cigars, G.W. Van Slyke & Co., Albany, N.Y.", inscribed on thumb catch to right "Bryant & May's, Patent, London" , diamond, star and dot pattern on rest of box body. Striker on reverse.
"Escepcional De La Espanola"
In the form of a hand-rolled cigar, with red and white enamelled label inscribed "Escepcional De La Espanola," reverse of label features coat of arms. Last quarter of cigar, where simulated rolled tobacco is visible, flips open as box lid, hinged on reverse. Rolled tobacco at tip likley intended as striker.
Vices Theme, with Large Goblet
Oblong, with curved sides, top and bottom, featuring raised decoration of oversized champagne goblet with image of female's face visible inside, goblet sits on table with large, table-top matchsafe, and burning cigar at table's edge, smoke swirls fill background and extend into lid where there is a champagne bottle and cooked poultry. Reverse slightly concave. Lid hinged on side. Striker on bottom.