The Engineering of Matches

One of the most important tools throughout history has been fire.  If we go back to the prehistoric times, fire was everything for people.  It gave them warmth, light, and cooked their food.  The only problem was that it was very difficult for them to create.  Most of use can’t imagine what life would have been like without being able to spark a flame easily. Before matches were created, people simply used flint and steel.  Thankfully, the match was first created – accidentally- in 1826.  In 1826, a pharmacist named John Walker saw a dry lump on a stick when he was working and mixing chemicals.  Once he tried to scrape it off, he created a flame.  He then created the modern match out of cardboard sticks.  He dipped the cardboard into his match head material and – poof – instant matches. These hand made matches started to sell very quickly and once they got more popular, he added wooden splints to his product line. And a touch of sulfur on the tips of the matches, for some added fuel and sensitivity.

            The demand for matches grew more and more, and soon factories were created.  This invention really took off. Two Quaker merchants named Francis May and William Bryant created a factory in England around 1843 where they made the lucifer match.  The end of the match was created from white phosphorous, which is highly toxic.  The factory workers suffered the most because of this – a condition called Phossy Jaw. It was a painful and disfiguring condition caused by the toxic chemical.  Working to create these matches was extremely dangerous and many of the the working women died.  These awful conditions led to the Great Match Strike of 1888, where all of the women walked out of the Bryant & May match factory.  For more information on other match factories, read Prelude to the American Match Industry Story.

The  Great Match Strike led to safer chemicals used in matches.  In 1862, red phosphorus was used to replace the white phosphorus, which could only be lit by striking the side of the match box.  The first true Safety Matches.  While this was an amazing new invention, people wanted to continue to strike a match anywhere possible.  This could only be done by using white phosphorus and for 50 more years, white phosphorus was used despite all of its health risks.  By 1910, the manufacturing of lucifer matches had come to an end and the stable red phosphorus is used today.  Through all of these engineering changes in the 1800’s, eventually the match came out right.  Red phosphorus is printed on the match box, and the match head lights the paper match or wooden stick. 

This simple invention is easy to overlook.  But he impact it had on world cultures is not. From the employment of thousands of workers to the lighting of indoor gas stoves for kitchen cooking, matches left their mark. In a big way.

The same general design principle of the first safety match creation in 1826 is still used today.  Since the 1800’s it has been easy to safely light a match wherever and whenever needed.  While there has not been any new engineering on the modern match, it is interesting to know its history.  If you want to read more about the market for matches today, read The American Match Industry – Part 1.

Some have tried to improve on the basic invention of the paper matchbook. In the 1970’s the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) targeting the industry for safety reforms. The result? Moving the matchbook striker from the front to the back of the book. The consensus at the time was that no additional engineering was possible given the simple basic design of the book match.

Over the decades of the rise of the American Match Factories (until their decline in 1977) each match chemist developed their own proprietary match head formula.  Top secret.  Still, the basic chemical ingredients were the very same used by Bryant & May.  When it comes to building fire, there are only so many options.  Mother nature teaches us that.

Eliza Smith is a guest blogger and a student intern. She is studying Business at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She loves the beach at Sullivan’s Island, and was inspired to write this blog about the impact of plastic on the oceans and the willingness to make a better choice for the environment.

Take the Match: Sustainability of Matches Over Lighters

matchbook ddbean

The choice between striking a match or using a disposable lighter does not seem like a difficult or worrying decision for consumers.  It is easy to use what is on hand at the time without really thinking about any of the consequences it has.  When consumers do not think about these decisions, it shows how these simple choices we make can have negative effects on the environment.  Sustainable matches are easily recyclable and biodegradable.

            Unlike lighters, matches are made from wood or paper, which is easily biodegradable.  Because they are biodegradable, they won’t contribute to the growing waste problem in the world.  The most common type of wood matches are made from aspen or white pine.  Each tree can create hundreds of thousands of match sticks.  For an interesting read on the history of matches, try Prelude to the American Match Industry Story.            

          Full sized lighters can burn up to an hour.  These lighters eventually run out and are turned to be thrown away. Once a lighter is disposed, it will exist in our environment forever.  After they are disposed, these lighters will be either thrown into landfills, on the streets, or swept into the ocean.  Once these lighters are disposed into the ocean, they will easily be mistaken by fish for birds to eat.  One type of bird that is strongly affected by pollution is the Laysan Albatross bird.  This bird catches fish by skimming the water with its beak.  While doing this, it picks up other debris and plastic from the ocean.  In this article about the Layman Albatross birds, there are images showing that they have consumed disposable lighters.  This will kill them quickly, once eaten.

While it isn’t a pressing decision whether to use a match or a lighter, it is an easy choice.  Matches are usually free and can be found in a lot of different restaurants and stores.  This makes them even more accessible than lighters for people.  Highly engaged community convenience stores like Wawa and Sheetz, give away the books for free to their loyal customers who may prefer a recyclable match to the plastic lighter. Take the match.

The sustainability of matches over lighters can tremendously improve how the environment is affected.  Matches are biodegradable and environmentally friendly, which makes them an easy choice over a lighter.  They are also produced in the USA, which means a smaller carbon footprint over imported disposable lighters. To learn more about the match industry and the last match factory in America read more blogs on the DDBean website.

Eliza Smith is a guest blogger and a student intern. She is studying Business at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She loves the beach at Sullivan’s Island, and was inspired to write this blog about the impact of plastic on the oceans and the willingness to make a better choice for the environment.

American Match Industry – Part 2

We learned in Part 1, that by 2019 all the match factories that once existed in America were closed or sold, resulting in what we have today – one match factory in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.  As the sole survivor and steward to the iconic industry, we will be writing the future as we go.  But don’t worry, we have a plan.

Imagine if you were to visit the factory to see the new match operations:

“A new era of match making has emerged.  By combining the technologies of the Bean plant and the Atlas plant, all the different variations of match making methods are on display-in operating form-every day.  Because the match factories were rolling up for many years – since 1973 – the legacy of all matchmaking equipment is now bolted down to the D.D. Bean plant floor.  For example, we are running the very same equipment that was used in Canada at the Eddy Match plant, until it’s closure in 1999. 

On the shop floor you will find the best-of-the-best book match making equipment in the world.  The original D.D. Bean commodity matchbook machines are a marvel in their own right.  These matchbook or “booking” machines, run at twice the speed of any other semi-automated match-making machine ever in production.  Caddy packing is fully automated to meet the high-speed rate of the assembly machine.  The pace is rapid, but the quality – due to decades of honing the machine – is excellent.  World class.

Further down the production line, you will see the promotional and advertising matchbooks being produced on the card and flat fed machines.  Standing alongside these mechanized, synchronized, harmonized assembly machines are a team of American workers.  Each member of the team takes turns operating and packing for the machine.  Both operators are highly trained in quality control and take great pride in turning out a product our customers are delighted to own and share.

At the heart of the operation, deep inside the old brick and beam mill building, is the mixing room.  Four large kettles are filled and emptied and refilled daily, with all the match-making chemicals.  This is no easy job.  Historically, each match factory had its own formula for mixing match heads; each plant employed an official Match Chemist to monitor and modify the formula as needed.  Some plants have used robotics to blend the chemicals with electronic weighing systems. We prefer the traditional method of hand weighing and blending the chemicals.

In the mixing room, you will see important process controls, variable speed monitors, sensors, pumps.  But the key to a successful batch of match head composition is the mixer – his name is Cliff.  Years of practice and his batches come out the same every time.  We know, because we test every one.

This new era match factory employs many other specialists too.  In addition to experienced machine operators (which requires years of training because all of our machines are one-of-a-kind) and experts in mixing the match head, there is a team of mechanics and a team of printers.  Both are specialized to support the modern match plant.”

This modern match plant is the natural progression in a mature industry.  What you won’t see are the milestones between the match plant closings of the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  You won’t see the dramatic change in distribution channels when the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) banned advertising of cigarettes on matches.  And you won’t see the progressive disappearance of a free matchbook. 

Each of these major events have inevitably jolted the industry from the path it was on to a completely new and unmarked one.  The American match-makers have risen to the challenge each time, and proven their ingenuity and perseverance by refusing to go away.  This is a story of survival. This is a story of commitment.  This is a story of an industry refusing to become obsolete.  Refusing to be eradicated by advanced manufacturing or robotics.  Refusing to be erased by imported substitute products.  We make fire.  Portable fire for everyone.  Right here in the USA.  And we will not be snuffed out.  

American Match Industry – Part 1B

The next installment of our History of the American Match Industry (Part II) was due last week.  The company historian, Mark Bean, was writing the series.  Mark had collected hundreds of pages of newspaper articles, magazine stories, books, letters, and company reports.  In addition, he listened to dozens of anecdotes, many first-hand from the major figures in the industry.

Sadly, our own Match-King passed away on August 12, 2019, unexpectedly.  The historical record of the American Match Industry is now incomplete.  Mark was creating and writing the record for us, as we went along.  He was working the story forward to the present day; to the current time, when the industry has consolidated into one plant and one company, led by the Bean Family.  Mark accepted the role of industry steward with honor and respect.

We will continue to tell the story, picking up where we left off in the last installment American Match Industry – Part I.  But for the moment, we will pause to reflect on the legacy of Mark Bean.

If you read the first blog Prelude to the American Match Industry, you learned about Ivar Kreugar.  Ivar was titled the Match King.  He was an imposing and almost fantastical character.  He was considered a business titan, being both ruthless and unwavering.  There are books and business case studies about this early day entrepreneur.

Mark was the anti-Kreugar.  His intentions were noble, where Kreugar’s were profit driven.  Mark cared more about the people than the profits.  His agenda was transparent and true.  Mark wanted the industry to succeed, for the people and for the nostalgic mark we made on the country.  Mark appreciated the thread of humanity that drove the story from the beginning.  He was fascinated by Kreugar.  But also by the other leaders, especially those who developed the book match industry.  Such as, Diamond Match’s O.C. Barber.  And the leaders of Eddy Match in Canada, and Universal Match from Hudson, New York.

In 1990, Mark brought together the leaders of the match companies, and created the American Match Council.  In the 2000s, he again brought the industry together to develop supply agreements that would leverage the strengths of the remaining factories.  He reached out to Diamond Match, when closing their 100-year old factory in 2017.  Mark salvaged a piece of that legacy, and brought their fire-starter line to New Hampshire.  And it was 2016, when he facilitated the final chapter in the paper match story by purchasing the last plant, Atlas Match, and folding it into the D.D. Bean family.  In 2018, he gathered a team of historians, town and state leaders, match collectors, and museum experts to explore the viability of a Match Museum.  At his urging and persistence, the project grew legs and is deep in development now.

The thread is obvious.  Since he came on the scene in 1978, Mark Bean actively and passionately worked to better the industry.  He was a true stakeholder, working tirelessly for the betterment of us all.  His vision was for the people who built the industry, ran the machinery, talked to the customers, and developed the relationships with suppliers and distributors, to succeed in keeping the industry’s flame burning bright.

The American Match Industry – Part 1

The market for “lights’ in the United States evolved throughout the twentieth century from wooden stick matches to paper book matches. In the early decades of the century, wooden matches were well established throughout most of the world, thanks in large part to the monopolistic empire of the infamous Swedish financier Ivar Kreuger.  Without the rise of Swedish Match and Ivar Kreuger’s thirst for profits, the global match industry would look much different today.   

However, in North America, a different trend emerged.  Paper book matches took hold because they were less expensive to produce, and the matchbook cover was ideal for advertising. By the 1940’s, the give-away matchbook was firmly established as a highly effective and cost-efficient advertising medium. During the war years, matchbooks were used for patriotic messages

Striking Facts: 

  • By the mid 1970’s – the match industry’s peak years – there were at least a dozen independent match companies in the U.S. and Canada operating over 25 different factories.  
  • Each factory had their own product focus: 
  • Some factories produced only book matches,  
  • while others produced both wooden and book. 
  • Some factories produced only promotional advertising matches, 
  •  and others produced commodity resale matches for grocery stores and for distribution wherever tobacco products were sold.  
  • The industry employed over 2,000 workers and the market for book matches alone was estimated to be more than 35 billion matchbooks per year – that’s 700,000,000,000 lights! 
  • Before 1970, disposable butane lighters did not exist. By 1985, lighters had taken 50% of the lights market from matches causing half the match factories to close. By the end of the century, disposable lighters had captured about 95% of the market. Soon thereafter, D.D. Bean & Sons Co. in Jaffrey, New Hampshire and Atlas Match Corp. in Euless Texas were the only two remaining book match producers left in North America.  
  • In 2016, D.D. Bean & Sons Co. acquired Atlas Match to become the sole survivors in this great American industry. D.D. Bean continued to produce resale matchbooks at its factory in New Hampshire and Atlas continued to produce promotional matchbooks, matchboxes and coasters at the factory in Texas. 
  • By 2018, it became clear that if there was any chance of keeping the American match industry alive, the two factories would need to become one. As a result, the extremely difficult decision was made to close the Atlas factory in Texas and move the manufacturing operation to New Hampshire. 
  • Founded in 1938, D.D. Bean & Sons Co. is a third-generation family business. D.D. Bean is not only the last remaining manufacturer of matches in the United States, it is the largest producer of book matches in the world. 
  • Today, although the market for matches is much smaller, this industry still employs about 100 American workers, many career matchmakers, and some following in their parents’ and even grandparents’ footsteps over the company’s eighty-one-year history. Together, they have worked to become the survivors of this great American industry. Together, they stand determined to build a great future to carry forward to the next generation. Together, D.D. Bean and Atlas, we are America’s Match Company! 

Prelude to the American Match Industry Story

Matches

The Global Match Kickoff of 1912

The story of the American Match Industry could read like a suspense novel.  There are villains and heroes; there is suffering and victory. There is planning and conniving, deception, and old-fashioned bad luck.

The 100-year saga takes place across the globe, in countries from Sweden to India to Australia to Brazil.  In those days, when travel was primarily by train and boat, it took tremendous persistence and motivation, to grow an industry and replicate a newly mechanized production model.  The American Match Industry is a subset of a much larger, more complex global economy of matches and the production of portable, convenient, reliable fire.

In the beginning, there was fire.  And to harness that fire, strapping it to a wooden stick for maximizing profits, was Ivar Kreuger (monopolistic Swedish financier).  Ivar Krueger was the engineer behind the Swedish Match domination of the world match commodity market.  [To read the Swedish Match version of the company’s history, visit www.swedishmatch.com].  Apparently, Ivar was driven by profits, and didn’t always care how it was delivered.  Some say his plan was to acquire and/or build every match factory in the world, at which point he would raise the prices [and spend his days counting all his money].  Maybe that is true.  Or just maybe he was a very clever, overly successful business leader and entrepreneur.  We can’t really know.  I can only glean so much from his Wikipedia page.

Ivar died by suicide in 1932, he was just 52 years old.  His family thought the circumstances were suspicious, but the investigation didn’t pan out.  For an interesting read about the life and death of this business titan, try The Match King, by Frank Partnoy

Over the decades, the match industry underwent multiple mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies.  Even Ivar’s beloved Swedish Match evolved and transformed itself multiple times across every continent.  Almost every wooden match factory in the world had some association with Swedish Match, including our very own Beal Industries, in Kingston Jamaica.  The Bean Family partnered with Swedish Match to run a factory in Jamaica producing Comet brand matches for the local market.  The factory closed just 10-years ago, due to competition from imports.   

Few industries have a history dominated by so many mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies.  The industry refuses to wink- out without a fight.  After all, the world still needs fire and matches are portable, dependable, and comparatively inexpensive.  Today, in 2019, there is just one match factory in America.  You guessed it – D.D. Bean – which acquired Atlas Match and Eddy Match in 2016.  The final chapter in a long sequence of mergers and acquisitions. The industry consolidated.  Keeping the flame alive.

Fortunately, D.D. Bean / Atlas Match, the Bean family, and the 84 Bean-family-of-workers, are here to tell the story of the American Match Industry.  Being the only surviving match factory in America, gives D.D. Bean an editorial right and obligation to tell the story in all its anecdotal glory.  In subsequent blogs, we will try to fairly and honestly tell the tale of the industry.  We will provide some facts and statistics, maybe even dazzle with charts and graphs.  But in the end, it will be the personal stories and nostalgic tales that capture the essence of this old-fashioned, smoke-stack industry.

As you read about our story, and the story of the American Match industry, you might think “who really cares?”  “I never thought about matches before, so why now?” And maybe you don’t really care.  But you should, and here’s why. 

  • The story of matches is the story of bringing fire to the homes of millions of people in far-away, even remote parts of the world, as well as our own communities here. 
  • Matches were the invention that boosted the quality of human life. 
  • Matches brought cooking indoors, and light where there was none. 
  • Matches could be easily carried from place to place – portable fire. 
  • Cooking food and staying warm was never more convenient. 
  • Reading and writing long into the night was made possible by matches and candles and lamps.
  • Matches are sometimes given away for free (what else can you get for free today?)

Looking back to 1912, and how the Swedish Match empire grew, it was inevitable that match production would spread, because match production was like providing water or oxygen.  Matches were affordable for even the poorest households and people needed matches.  But that may not be why Ivar Kreuger and his team built match factories around the globe.  Without the rise of the Swedish Match production model and Ivar Kreuger’s thirst for profits, the global match industry would look much different today. 

Let’s imagine that for a minute.  In 1918, Swedish Match installed the first continuous match machine in the Kalmar, Sweden.  Next, this was rapidly duplicated globally.  The company had created the most efficient match machinery ever used (still in use today), trained local staff on how to operate and fix it, and provided all the raw materials needed (at a cost) for the factory to operate.  Sounds a little like a modern-day McDonald’s franchise.  A complete turn-key setup.  It was destined to succeed.  Locals were paid for important work, and managers were often recruited from the local communities.

What if Swedish Match had not globalized match production, but each nation was left to evolve their own match production.  I think it would look much different today.  Instead of wooden matches in Brazil, you might have something like Mexico – Wax “Vesta” matches.  Or maybe the South American countries would have innovated something completely different given their natural resources.  We will never know.  Swedish Match equipment (branded ARENCO) is still operating today in Chile, Brazil, Sweden, and India.  Maybe even Pakistan and South Africa.

As it turns out, Swedish Match also operated wooden match factories in America.  But for some reason, a different trend emerged.  Call it match-industry evolution.  Paper matches emerged in the 1940’s and coexisted with the wooden match industry in America until 2017 (when the last wooden match factory closed).

To learn more about the paper match industry in America – the sole surviving segment of the match industry today – look for the next blog installment titled “The American Match Industry”.  And if you have any comments regarding this prelude to the American Match Industry Story, please email me at jbartlett@ddbean.com.