Saturday, 18 May 2013 02:00

The World of Vintage Lighters

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

Most of us learned in school that the discovery of fire was one of the most important steps in the development human civilization. In fact, our ancestors didn’t so much discover fire as learn how to control it. Keeping it contained so we could use its benefits was one thing; the hard part was learning how to start a fire precisely where and when we wanted it.

The cave men had flint and later civilizations had the magnifying glass (which needed sunlight) and there were many ancient methods using soaked rags or rope but none of these were portable or safe enough to make them generally usable.

It’s amazing to think that the devices we now use to start most fires, matches and lighters, are relatively recent inventions and the match as we know it was actually invented after the mechanical lighter.

Both were first manufactured in the early 1820s. The first working lighter was invented by Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner in 1823; the wooden match came from English chemist John Walker in 1826. Both were unpredictable, explosive and used chemicals that were dangerous and poisonous but they worked and were used for many years.

However it wasn’t until after 1880, with the invention of the safety match, the matchbook and better lighters that things really get interesting for collectors of vintage lighting devices. There are a lot of collectors searching them out for many different reasons; matches and lighters enabled the popularity of cigar and cigarette smoking so they are an essential part of any serious tobacciana collection, they were used extensively as an advertising medium and lighters really gained in popularity during the Art Deco period so they have a beauty all their own.

100 lighter fusee cxontentEarly lighters came in many different shapes and styles with different mechanisms that worked, or didn’t work, to varying degrees. In 1880 there was the “fusee”, which was inspired by the cannon fuse. It was essentially a cord soaked in chemicals; later models had a fuel tank. It didn’t burn with an open flame, just glowed red for hours at a time. The Magic Pocket Lamp, introduced in 1889, was a fusee that used a cap, as in a cap gun, to ignite the cord. They were quite popular and you can still find examples around today. A later variation was used as a hand warmer up until fairly recently. Other popular lighters were more like permanent matches, a metal wand with a wick that could be re-used.

100 lighter pocket. contentjpgIn 1926 the Ronson Company made the first automatic lighter that didn’t literally blow up in your face. Called “The Banjo” because of its curvy shape, Ronson used the slogan “Press it’s lit – release it’s out” to describe it. The basic mechanism is familiar to us today; press down on a lever which opens a cap and turns a wheel which rubs against a “flint” (it’s not really flint, but a synthetic substitute) which sends a spark to ignite a wick soaked in fluid. Release the lever and the cap closes, extinguishing the flame. There were many other types of lighters around by then but being first out of the gate with such a classic design makes Ronson a very collectable brand today.

Although it came along much later, Zippo is now the most collectable brand of lighter. This is partly because of its high quality and partly because early on the company decided to mark all their lighters with a code so they could tell exactly when it was made. That’s a collector’s dream; the code is a bit cryptic but it can be deciphered so it’s easy to display your collection in chronological order.

Introduced in 1933, the Zippo isn’t quite automatic; you have to open the cap then rotate a wheel to light the flame but that motion can be very cool and manly compared to the more gentile Ronson. Zippo’s design also makes it more wind proof so it became popular with soldiers during World War II. Many bored and scared soldiers would inscribe darkly humourous sayings on their lighters and there is a very active market for those unique items. Zippo is still making lighters and virtually all of them become collectable in some way but the most desirable are the very early models that have the hinge on the outside of the cap.

100 lighters zippo contentMany lighters, especially Zippos, had advertising on them which makes them more collectable but when it comes to collecting matches, it’s all about the advertising.

It was an American, Joshua Pusy, who invented the matchbook in 1890. The Diamond Match Company bought the patent and started mass-manufacturing them in 1896.  One of their enterprising salesmen, Henry Traute, came up with the perfect way to sell them. Instead of selling matches, he sold companies on the advertising potential of the matchbook cover. He convinced Pabst Beer, The American Tobacco Company and Wrigley’s Chewing Gum to buy thousands of matchbooks, print ads on them and give them away. He not only made a lot of money for himself and his company, he started a whole new field of collecting for people now known as phillumenists, which means “lovers of light”.

Matchbooks are the perfect collectable. There’s no cost to start, just pick up free matchbooks and throw them in a fishbowl. Be careful though, once you’re hooked, you start searching out vintage items or a certain theme, hotels for instance. Serious phillumenists can spend thousands of dollars on very rare, early examples of advertising art. Over-sized and die-cut books are the most popular.

Today, most lighters are disposable and matchbooks are pretty generic. We now have many safer, cleaner and more convenient ways of starting fires but in the upside down world of collecting, the less we need something, the more we want to collect and preserve it. Those first, cave dwelling phillumenists had no idea what they were getting us into.

Lorne VanSinclair and his wife Mary own and operate the Carousel Collectables Antique Market in downtown Orillia as well as the Musical Collectables Record & CD Sale, Canada’s largest record collectors’ event. E-mail them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or see Carousel Collectables on Facebook