I inherited a matchbook collection from my Father-in-law, which he had inherited it from his Uncle George. From what I can tell, George collected matchbooks from his daily interactions with Chicago-land businesses as well as from his travels throughout the United States and abroad. His collection includes matchbooks from the 40's through the 80's and features a myriad of products and services from cigarettes to antacids to to restaurants and everything in between. Perhaps most exciting is that on some of the restaurant and hotel matchbooks, George has written dates and little notes referring to his experiences there!
Not only is this collection a sampling of an obsolete advertising mechanism, but it's also a record of a George's life experiences. I can't help but imagine him eating at the various supper clubs and Tiki restaurants or checking out of the family owned motels that have now disappeared. Furthermore, it's a collection of how marketing and advertising created and supported racist and sexist social constructs as well as propagating, in the case of cigarettes, flagrant misinformation. It's hard to look at a cigarette ad that promotes healthy smoking and not question all of the advertising we encounter today.
It's impossible to ignore that the advertising on these little packets of fire starters was completely driven by the cigarette industry. Smoking was ubiquitous, and everyone needed a light. When the urge struck to smoke, a consumer would pull out a folded pack of possibility, hold it in her hand and gaze at a friendly greeting from a dry cleaners or a restaurant from Saturday's night out. The satisfaction from the cigarette ignition would imprint upon the product or service featured on the cardboard square. Forget the invention of fire, this is advertising ingenuity!
These days, it's rare to find matchbook advertising now that smoking is less popular, and I wonder what if anything has replaced this sort of genius, pocket approach to advertising. Perhaps the pop-up advertisements on our phones recreate the same positive associations with products and social media. Or, maybe social media itself has allowed businesses to encourage their consumers to do the legwork through tagging, posting, and Instagram modeling.
I'm sure there are some wonks in university advertising and marketing programs who are better equipped to answer these questions. What I'm really interested in, is closely studying these matchbooks as individuals inhabiting a collection. I wanted to share them with the world via Instagram (speaking of social media) in creating a virtual museum. If you are interested in following along, I've created George's Mini Matchbook Museum ---under the handle: www.instagram.com/matchbook_museum/. I'm posting a matchbook a day until I make it through the entire collection. I hope that the features of Instagram tagging and algorithms will help to connect George's museum to those interested in vintage advertising and U.S. culture after World War II. I'm excited to learn about both of these things as well as George, himself, through this investigative project.
Anna Lentz, artist and writer, blogs about making a creative life connected with nature at Spring Bird.