I’d like to talk about matches. The first friction matches were made by John Walker, in England in 1826. They were a boon to mankind, a quick way to start a fire, but unfortunately they often started the fire in one’s pocket. So special containers were made to hold the short wooden matches; the cases became known as “match safes” in the United States and “Vesta cases” in England, a nod to a brand of matches named for Vesta, the Roman goddess of the undying fire of hearth and home.
Everyone who had occasion to light a lantern, a stove or a cigarette carried wooden matches in a match safe or a Vesta case. The simpler cases were made of inexpensive metal; the more ornate were crafted in sterling silver with beautiful, engraved designs. Many cases were wrapped in celluloid to carry an advertising message. They were produced in great numbers between 1890 and 1920.
Fast forward to 1943. The world is at war. An American Army officer stationed in England gets a chance to go into London, a city almost bombed into pumice by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and ‘41, but still alive, and now rising again.
The American and his friends walk into a pub. The next part of the story is little hazy, but it’s likely that the officer took out American cigarettes, and offered them around. A local took out his Vesta case to provide everyone with a light. The American officer, who had relations in Auburn, N.Y., looked at the case and saw, quite clearly, two words that took his breath away:
True story. How the case came to be in London wasn’t revealed, but for a moment, the young American was home.
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“Soldier Gets Home Reminder in English Inn,” Auburn Citizen-Advertiser, March 15, 1943
Photo: Bus, advertising Swan Vesta matches, in a bomb crater in London, during the Blitz. October 1940, London Telegraph