Several years ago, U.K.-based web designer Jane McDevitt stumbled upon some intricately illustrated vintage matchboxes on eBay. A few hailed from the Soviet space age, with comic-inspired graphics of astronauts at a Russian space station; others featured fairy-tale scenes of foxes roaming the Polish countryside; still others were adorned with odalisques in smoky nightclubs. McDevitt’s love of typography and illustration led her to start collecting these underrated 20th-century trinkets.
Her collection of matchboxes now numbers at around 5,000, with most made in Japan and Eastern Europe from the 1920s through the 1980s. Collectors Weekly culled the highlights of McDevitt’s collection–more of which is available on her Flickr account–to display the beauty of these vintage images, most done by anonymous illustrators. “My interest in matchbox labels lies primarily in the design, but also in the concept that these small images can communicate to a large number of people,” McDevitt tells Co.Design in an email. What looked like whimsical pictures for children’s storybooks were actually bite-sized advertisements–some were health and safety PSAs from the Soviet government; others promoted Japanese tea houses, bakeries, and jazz clubs. They’re examples of how an imaginative mind can turn a mundane, mass-produced utilitarian object into a tiny piece of art, a keepsake that transcends the advertiser’s original intent. Imagine if Bic lighters looked this good.
McDevitt’s collecting of matchboxes might sound idiosyncratic, but it’s a hobby popular enough that there’s an actual term for it–phillumeny, which roughly translates from the Greek and Latin to “lover of light.” Hundreds of phillumenist sites have cropped up on the web, saving these designs from obsolescence.
For a more in-depth history of matchbox design, head to Collectors Weekly.