Vestas kept matches safe and dry

A Faberge gilt silver and guilloche enamel jeweled vesta case by August Holstrom, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1890-1908, realized $7,500+ the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Long before matches came to be, fire was produced through friction or focusing sunlight on combustible material. By the 1700s, people commonly lit candles, lanterns, stoves and cigars by striking pieces of flint against fire-steels, which sparked slow-burning, charcloth tinder. Many kept these flame-producing trios in cumbersome tinder boxes.

Red phosphorus-tipped lucifer splints reached the British market in the 1830s. These strike-anywhere friction matches, however, unintentionally ignited when touching coarse surfaces. So, gentlemen (women did not smoke) stored them safely in small, tightly closed vestas, pocket-size cases named for the Roman goddess of hearth, home and fire. These are also known as match safes in the United States.

Three tin tinder boxes ranging in size from 2½in. to 3 5/8in. realized $240+ the buyer’s premium in 2017. Each included a flint stone, fire steel and tinder. Image courtesy Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Vestas, initially adapted from oval, oblong, rectangular, round or pillow-formed Georgian snuff boxes, featured ribbed exterior or interior strikers. To prevent stray sparks from transforming them into firebombs, however, their flip-top, hinged lids were set on their base. Many also bore rings for linking to fashionable “Albert” watch chains, which were draped in pockets.

“Combination” personal vestas, in addition to storing lucifers, sometimes incorporated tiny, useful items like knife blades, pencils, cigar cutters, whistles or space for full or half gold sovereigns.

Victorian silver combination vesta case and whistle engraved with foliate scrolls surrounding an inset oval panel to the front with enameled hunting scene of a man on horseback and two hounds running at his side. Hallmarked to the reverse of the lid William Neale, Chester 1888, 6.7 cm long. Price realized: £500+ the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

Larger table ones were conveniently kept at hearthsides, in smoking rooms and at gentlemen’s clubs. Metal, wood or ivory “go-to-bed” mantelpiece models, designed to prevent igniting delicate canopy bed curtains, featured candle-like finials that flickered for mere seconds — enough time for the user to light them and then hop into bed.

Victorian brass match holder or vesta ‘go to bed’ in the form of a dancing bear chained to a tree. Its head lifts to show compartment for matches and the top of the post has a slot for holding a lit match. It measures 2 7/8in. x 2¼in. x 1½in. Price realized: $30+ the buyer’s premium in 2007. Image courtesy of Valley Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Through the years, pocket vestas, like mustache styles, hats and neckwear, reflected a man’s personality and social status. Working-class smokers often used giveaways made of tin, gunmetal, celluloid or vulcanite that promoted, for example, banks, billiards, beer or whiskey.

Three match safes or vestas promoting John Harper cigars, The Little Corporal whiskey and the First National Bank, Blairsville, Pa., the largest measuring 2¾in. high. Price realized: $400+ the buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

More sophisticated smokers often preferred classier vestas featuring hunting, sporting, gambling, drinking or dancing motifs. Some commemorated visits to Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty or the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Others celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee or the reign of Edward VII.

Superb late 19th century French silver vesta case of pillow form, 4.5 cm x 3 cm. Price realized: $140+ the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Aalders Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The wealthy usually preferred costly, handcrafted solid gold or sterling silver vestas with anti-corrosive gilt interiors. Many bore ornate initials, empty cartouches edged with scrolling florals, or all-over ribbed, hammered, woven or wavy textures. Others, following fashion, featured stylized natural motifs, flowing scroll and acanthus leaf designs, or images of damsels with flowing tresses.

A Victorian silver novelty cigarette and vesta case in the form of a piano was made by Harrison Brothers & Howson, London, in 1887. It realized £2,000+ the buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Ewbank’s and LiveAuctioneers

Despite so many choices, many smokers, whatever their class or calling, found vestas depicting risqué beauties (safely pocketed unless in male company) most desirable of all.

Others preferred the whimsy of brass or bronze novelty ones. Many are shaped like owls, turtles, coiled snakes, or cat, dog or horse heads. Others, fashioned like pianos, jockey caps, dominoes or fishing creels, for instance, reflect common pastimes and passions. Some, resembling lanterns, high-button shoes, gloves, visiting cards or Brazil nuts, a costly, imported, Victorian Christmastime treat, today evoke bygone times.

So do the lyrics of this popular World War I song:

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,

and smile, smile, smile

While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag,

Smile, boys, that’s the style

 Apparently, lucifer-filled vestas raised military morale.

As more practical, modern lighters reached the market, however, vesta gradually disappeared from use. Today, history buffs, fashionistas and art lovers value these fascinating, functional pieces as objets d’art. Some seek classics by legendary Birmingham silversmiths, especially those bearing identifying hallmarks or maker marks. Some seek pieces featuring a particular material or motif. Many collect ones by prestigious jewelers like Alfred Dunhill, Sampson Mordan, Gorham or Unger Bros. Others prize exquisitely wrought Imperial Russian vestas, like Faberge’s dramatic, intricately patterned, vividly hued, gold-rimmed guilloché creations.

Most vestas, well used, are well worn. Yet in the eyes of many, this only increases their charm.