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Gift to the Museum: Set of Russian Matchboxes

Autumn, 1998

THE Museum has recently acquired a souvenir set of matchboxes as a gift from Dr Vasily Borissov of the Institute of the History of Natural Sciences and Technology in Moscow. The set illustrates the collections of the Polytechnical Museum in Moscow, with each of its eighteen matchboxes carrying an image of one of the highlights of this museum of science and technology.

A wide range of objects is depicted, from automobile to locomotive, lightbulb to typewriter, with a mechanical songbird lightening the chain of industrial progress. The emphasis is, not surprisingly, on Russian material such as a model of Lomonosov’s laboratory, Popov’s wireless ‘radio’ set and a Sputnik satellite. Scientific instruments feature in the form of a pair of Russian microscopes, and calculating machines are also represented by Willgodt Theophil Odhner’s ‘Arithmometer’ (subsequently developed as the ‘Brunsviga’), juxtaposed with two electronic devices.

This souvenir set might be considered as no more than a vehicle for its illustrations of scientific and technical objects, and treated accordingly as simply a piece of museological ephemera. But it connects with more than the Museum’s collection of prints, advertisements and related material.

Among its astrolabes, air pumps, microscopes and electrical instruments, the Museum also houses a small but fine collection of matches. The matches were previously displayed in a case devoted to firemaking devices, which also included Bunsen burners, Davy and Döbereiner lamps, crucibles, ember tongs, candle-snuffers, and even a ‘chuckmuck’ – a form of tinder box.

While hardly the most widely celebrated of the Museum’s objects, the matches are surprisingly evocative. Their containers, whether tins or boxes, are of course period objects in their own right: nineteenth-century matchboxes frequently carried not only the manufacturer’s name, instructions for use and claims as to the superiority of the brand, but also topical images of royal, military and other newsworthy events.

The Polytechnical Museum’s set is thus not so distant from the illustrated packaging of the past, when matchboxes might celebrate contemporary technological achievements such as the opening of bridges and even the introduction of the velocipede.

Matches themselves present more striking differences. The success of the safety match has resulted in the survival of a relatively limited range of match forms. However, the earlier predecessors of the safety match teem with a profusion of colours, sizes and shapes, as well as exotic names: the Museum’s collection includes Lucifers, Vesuvians, Fusees, and Vestas, as well as Congreves, named after Sir William Congreve of rocket fame.

For all their visual appeal and rich diversity, it might still seem possible to doubt the place of matches in the Museum. The domestic and quotidian character of the modern match makes it seem a world away from the history of science. Yet it should not be forgotten that matches are pre-eminently a chemical technology and their early development was often in the hands not only of manufacturing chemists but of academic scientists.

The idea of the safety match was itself due to Professor Rudolph Böttger of Frankfurt am Main, a respected chemist and editor of the Polytechnisches Notizblatt for thirty-five years. Böttger first suggested separating the notoriously inflammable constituents of earlier matches and placing the phosphorus on a specially prepared striking part of the box rather than in the match head.

Banal as they might now seem, matches do therefore have a significant scientific dimension, and the Russian souvenir box neatly underlines the point, while also serving to illustrate a museum’s vision of the history of science and technology.