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  • Carole Conn

Before There Were Matches

I started thinking about how the settlers dealt with light indoors because I found a spill holder at a market in New Hampshire recently. A spill holder is a container for sticks used to transfer fire from the hearth to an oil lamp or candle. Spill holders were usually hung on the mantle or near the hearth. There were no matches. So how did you light a candle?

Or a fire, for that matter?

Tinder. (I guess that's how the dating app got its name).

The items at the right are 18th to early 19th century sheet iron tinder boxes used widely before the invention of matches. The 3 pictured also have candle sockets on their lids, and thumb loops, making them doubly usable and very collectible today. Housed inside the box was usually a flint, a striker, and a bit of fibrous material like hemp.

To get a flame the flint was struck in a vigorous downward motion against the striker, sending sparks into the box and igniting the hemp. A spill, or sulphur tipped stick could be carried to the candle. Many tinder boxes of this type also had a tamper (the crimped piece in the photo) to

extinguish the smoldering hemp. The strikers are forged iron, and can be very pretty.

Complete tinder boxes like these are very hard to find and are usually $200 and up. Look for ones with the candle socket on top. Boxes without them are usually quite a bit less expensive, when you can find them.

There are reproductions out there, usually easy to spot. Don't buy ones with sharp edges, a shiny surface and a lack of patina. The tin, or sheet iron should be a soft, mellow gray color. My motto is: when in doubt, pass.

Which brings me to the spill holder I found in New Hampshire recently. Spills are sticks, slivers of wood, or twisted paper which were lit by a tinder or a hearth fire and then transferred to a candle, oil lamp or stove.

They were usually hung by the hearth. Lighting an oil lamp or candle directly from a fireplace could be dangerous. Spills usually burned long enough to light several candles or oil lamps before they burned out.

There are all kinds of spill holders in many shapes and forms. I like this primitive tin one. Practical, nothing fancy.

In 1828 Samuel Jones, a Londoner, patented the "Promethean Match", which involved crushing a glass capsule. It didn't catch on.

In 1836 Alonzo Dwight Phillips of Springfield, MA, patented a friction match, which was a stick coated with sulphur. These matches became very popular, and quickly eclipsed the tinder box.

Early sulphur matches are rare and hard to find today. (See the photo at the top). They can also be dangerous - too easily combustible. The safety match was invented in 1844, with a separate striking surface. Eventually, safety matches replaced all prior types.

We take interior lighting for granted today, but early in our history most work, and even reading was impossible to do after sunset. The winter evenings were long and very dark. And boring.

Candles were expensive, so few were lit at one time. One estimate I read says that the average wealthy household in the 18th century possessed only 5 candlesticks. And poor households were lucky to have more than one.

I think of that when I look around my 18th century home. I should probably pare down!



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