by Sue Mell
For a while, when I was seven, I collected matchbooks. Not for the pyro factor, but for the illustrated covers put out by the Ohio Match Company. This would’ve been 1964, and those images of birds, flowers, and butterflies already had a vintage quality. At that time, my father still smoked a pipe, and my mother the occasional cigarette. I’m going to guess they used the kitchen matches necessary for lighting our gas oven, though I can’t be sure. I am certain there weren’t any matchbooks lying around the house, and that their smoking wasn’t the seed of my treasure seeking desire. The ones I was after were found in the streets of our quiet Queens neighborhood, and held a tinge of mystery at having been discarded by strangers. Collecting—the hunt for a design I didn’t have—was the draw. And there was something about those images, the smooth feel of the thin cardboard, a papery and slight sulfur smell, that bit of roughness of the striking surface. These were matchbooks that for the most part, I believe, came from the cigarette vending machines that once were everywhere. But I sought them out as though collecting rare stamps.
As a seven-year-old, I did not have access to bars or restaurants. What I did have was an older brother who was willing to ride me around on the back of his banana seat bike and stop on command as I perused the curbs. This is the part I remember most vividly: the whizz of spokes past my calves, the occasional damp splatter of a puddle’s edge, the swaying pump of my brother’s legs as we gathered speed. Then the quickening moment of excitement at a bit of softer color amid the brighter litter, the strewn leaves and bits of branch, that gathered around the corners and sewers. My brother patiently waiting as I inspected for uniqueness and quality, sharing in my success or disappointment.
I can’t recall where I stored those matchbooks, or how I kept track of the ones I did or didn’t have. And I don’t think my hobby lasted for more than a season. A time in which I seemed always to have my eye out for a small square of muted imagery.
Around thirty years later, I was in Stockton, California, helping a good friend clear out his mother’s things after she’d died. His mother had been a prodigious golf and bridge player, as well as an actively social smoker and drinker. In the closet I was focused on, were innumerable pairs of shoes with matching purses in a startling array of colors—remnants of the fashion conventions of another era. And in each of those purses was the same carefully organized handful of things: promotional-size boxes of Virginia Slims cigarettes, a packet of Kleenex, a roll of peppermint Life Savers, and a couple of Ohio Company matchbooks.
Oh my God, I said of the familiar blue jay and cardinal, the pink lily and duo of pansies, zippered into interior pockets. What? said my friend, in alarm. No— nothing—it’s just these old matchbooks. He rolled his eyes, fully aware of my penchant for odd vintage things. He hadn’t been close with his mother, and was now responsible for his father, an alcoholic and a heavy smoker, who’d always been a bit of a nasty person, a quality that had not improved with age related dementia. After he’d cleared out the house, my friend would bring his father home to live with him, his wife, and their two young kids, and his father, falling asleep with a burning cigarette in his hand, would nearly set their house on fire. That day in Stockton, I was too embarrassed to keep all the matchbooks, which I regret. But I did take a few—a tough choice between old friends and new. A bunting. A Western tanager. Birds I’ve only seen on a dead woman’s matchbooks.