Can you imagine staring at a common match and marvelling over what change it has brought to daily life? In this day-and-age of mobile telephones and mini variations of the computer in everyone’s pocket, the match pales to insignificance. Yet just about a century ago, on April 17, 1920, in one of our daily newspapers a columnist wrote this:
“The introduction of matches is of comparatively modern origin. The first lucifer matches date back only a hundred and fifteen years, and these were rudimentary and not too efficacious. They consisted of flat splinters of wood smeared with a mixture of potassium chlorate and sugar, bound together with gum and were fired by touching the tip upon concentrated sulphuric acid carried by the proud possessor of the new-fangled fire-lighter in a bottle and soaked in asbestos.
“Gradually the modern match was evolved,” he wrote, “but up to a hundred years ago, the tinder box was in general use in almost every land.”
1920s columnist (John Alexander) Robinson next reports that “through the courtesy of a prominent citizen” he has been privileged to see and examine “an old-time fire-lighting appliance which, although now obsolete and almost forgotten, was not very long ago the inseparable companion of our fishermen, sailors and sealers and of huntsmen on land and sea.
The columnist was John Alexander Robinson, well-known in our journalism past. He founded The Daily News and The Free Press and served in government as Postmaster General for Newfoundland. I have almost a year’s worth of his columns (the year being1920) cut from the newspapers and pasted into a hard-covered scrapbook, now browned and brittle.
In many of his daily columns he writes post-mortems on the recently ended “Great War.” But his natural curiosity was triggered by many topics. He could chat about the humble lucifer match then propound upon the Teaty of Versailles, which not only ended the Great War but set the stage for the next.
Matches as luxuries
“The friction match of today,” Robinson wrote, “dates about seventy years back (making that 1850)
and there are many still in our midst to whom in their young days matches were luxuries, rarely seen, and seldom employed.
“So recently as thirty years ago, matches in boxes were unaccustomed sights in many parts of Newfoundland. The sulphur matches in combs of a dozen or more were those most generally employed, not so much because the box variety were unobtainable as because the slow combustion, despite the most unpleasant fumes, rendered them more useful to the fireman, when he desired to kindle a fire of wood or tobacco in his boat, or on the windswept land or seas.”
The columnist is, of course, writing in the generally accepted way of a publication a century ago. Some words, some phrases are puzzling to us. So it is with his use of “the fireman” (above). He does not mean a man in a brigade who responds to an outbreak of fire. He is merely making reference to a person who needs to make fire for some mundane purpose.
Columnist Robinson next reports that “through the courtesy of a prominent citizen” he has been privileged to see and examine “an old-time fire-lighting appliance which, although now obsolete and almost forgotten, was not very long ago the inseparable companion of our fishermen, sailors and sealers and of huntsmen on land and sea.
“It came into the possession of its present owner nearly a quarter of a century ago,” he explains, “and in the black leather case which enclosed it was a memorandum, saying that the tinder box is fifty years old; was owned by Richard Kennedy of Greenspond, an Irishman, and was used by him forty years at the seal fishery.”
Despite its age, Robinson said it was just as fit for use as it was “in the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign” (she became queen in 1837).
“Forty years at the seal fishery and every fire lit and every pipe smoked borrowing its heat and incense from the sparks that, springing from the contact of flint and steel ignited the tinder in the roughly hollowed hard wood box with its stopper of time-worn cork; 40 years rich with incidents,” Robinson marvelled.
“The steel is a small piece of wrought metal as hard today as when the flint was first struck upon it ... half a century’s constant use may have worn it somewhat but it still rings true and gives unerring response to the striking flint; and there too (in the leather bag) is found a little bundle of strips of wood smeared with sulphur. The strips are the length of the familiar match of today and flat, as though split from a birch billet.”
But that wasn’t all. Robinson says that besides the flint and steel, sulphured splinters and tinder box, one other item was found within the bag — a flint arrow head.
“Was it one of those used by the Beothics when Lieut. Buchan’s expedition came to grief over a century ago? Who fashioned it? If flint and steel could tell stories of the 19th century, of what centuries could this arrow head speak?” He then turned and reflected on the days when men relied upon their own ingenuity and initiative, suggesting that motor boats and the like of the modern age (the 1920s) may have brought comfort and ease, “but they have not promoted resourcefulness and self-reliance.”
Robinson saw the antique fire-making kit as a memorial to the original owner:
“There may be those in Greenspond who remember Richard Kennedy, and if there are, it will be of interest to them to know that his tinder box is in the safe care and custody of one who prizes it, and to whom it speaks of the daring days of the long ago.”
Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org