Three’s a crowd in a matchbox

Three’s a crowd in a matchbox

What is it with matches and the number three?

Always a sucker for brightly coloured bits of paper, I’ve managed to accumulate a small collection of matchbox labels. I like these odd little works of art that flourished for years in a seemingly unlikely niche. They are like postage stamps, I suppose, in that they had strictly utilitarian beginnings but soon became a field for fertile design imaginations. I’m often baffled as to why certain designs were chosen to decorate the outsides of matchboxes, and some are nothing short of weird.

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Threes. Three of them. But why?

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But one of my earliest, most enduring and still unanswered queries is, why do so many designs involve the number three?

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True, you will find other numbers, and plenty of designs with no numerical reference whatever. But take my word for it, there are lots of threes on matchbox labels.

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If you pay attention to old matchbox labels you’ll see that lots of them come from Scandinavia – especially Sweden. There’s a good reason for that. Matches used to be dangerous little things to have around the place: tipped with toxic white phosphorus that could ignite too easily for comfort. Then Johan Edvard Lundstrom took the idea of a “safety match” – pioneered in 1844 by fellow Swede Gistaf Erik Pasch – and successfully commercialised it. Pasch had learnt from his teacher, Jons Jacob Berzelius, that red phosphorus was a much safer bet than the white stuff, but the trick was actually getting it onto a reliable product. Pasch came up with the great idea of moving the phosphorus off the match-head and onto the striking surface, but his efforts to get a product to market eventually fizzled out.

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Lundstrom took the idea and, with the help of his brother Carl, came up with a workable solution and in the 1840s they built a factory at Lake Vattern (it’s a museum today). The product took off. Suddenly it was possible to carry a safe and reliable means of making fire in your pocket, and matchboxes became handy little mass-produced billboards for art and advertising. Lundstrom got out of the business, but as it grew and prospered it was eventually taken over by one of the great colourful characters of Swedish capitalism, Ivar Kreuger.

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Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish Match King

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Kreuger was an aggressive businessman who understood the power that monopolies bring. He invested widely in many businesses, but is most commonly remembered as “the Match King”. Krueger’s family had been in the match business for some time and when they got into trouble shortly before World War I, Ivar converted the business into a stock corporation, then steadily bought up competitors during the war years. He merged the corporation with Sweden’s biggest producer and created Swedish Match, a corporation that today still sells tobacco products – including the big-selling “snus” that so many Swedes seem addicted to.

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At its peak, Kreuger’s global empire controlled almost three-quarters of world match production. Historians have dubbed him a swindler and a fraud. His sprawling empire collapsed in the Great Depression and he was found dead in March 1932. Much debate followed as to whether he had suicided or whether somebody had murdered him.

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Anyway, that’s why so many matchbox labels carry the “Made in Sweden” legend. As to the business with the threes, I’m still in the dark. One theory is that Krueger was perhaps aware of a superstition among soldiers that it is fatally unlucky to be the third person to light a cigarette from a single match. This superstition is said to have arisen in the Boer War when troops found that keeping a match lit long enough for three lights gave snipers a good chance to draw a bead on a victim. The superstition was certainly alive and well during World War I, during which many British soldiers would extinguish a match as quickly as possible after the second light to avoid attracting the hoodoo.

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I can’t help wondering if canny Ivar Kreuger, knowing of this superstition, might have encouraged the use of the “three” motif as a sort of subliminal reminder. Anything to discourage excessive frugality and encourage match consumption? I’m probably wrong, but it’s my best guess just at the moment.

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