Lighting in Fiction: My Kingdom for a Pack of Matches

Light and matchesWhen writing historical fiction, something as simple as light can be a challenge. Your character needs it to see, your readers need it to receive visual setting, and a lit candle or torch may not be handy. Moonlight and starlight can do a lot, but sooner or later your character will likely need to create his or her own light.

In prehistoric Europe, flint and iron pyrites (fool’s gold) were struck together to make sparks and build a fire. After the advent of the Iron Age, approximately 1300 BCE, iron and then carbon steel replaced the pyrites. In fact, you can create sparks by striking flint against the side of a steel blade.

It is possible to create portable containers that hold coal from a fire, and to use that coal to create flame later. People with fireplaces know a coal buried in ash can continue to burn overnight and still be a-glow the next morning.

Light and Matches

The first historical record of a matchstick is from the Chinese book, Records of the Unwordly and Strange, that was written by Tao Gu in the year 950 CE.

…An ingenious man devised the system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulfur and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire they burst into flame. One gets a little flame like an ear of corn. This marvellous thing was formerly called a “light-bringing slave”, but afterwards when it became an article of commerce its name was changed to ‘fire inch-stick.’

As you can see from the above, the problem with the ‘light-bringing slave’ was that there already had to be fire present.

The first self-igniting match was not invented until 1805. Even then, a match head soaked in potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar and rubber had to be dipped into an asbestos bottle of sulfuric acid—not an ideal set-up for the nightstand or midnight forays to the loo.

Although there were some lesser predecessors, the first successful friction match was accidentally discovered in 1826. It had some drawbacks: occasionally “flaming balls” fell to the floor and so this matchstick was banned in France and Germany. Later improvements still suffered from violent initial ignition, errant sparks and a nasty smell.

Starting in 1830, white phosphorus was used in the match heads. This lead to workers at match factories developing “phossy jaw” (phossy being short for phosphorus). This is a particularly disgusting, painful and ultimately fatal disease affecting the gums, teeth, jawbone and then internal organs. It has the macabre effect of leaving behind jawbones that glow in the dark.

The museum of the production of matches in Częstochowa

There was also enough white phosphorus in a pack of these “strike anywhere” matches to kill a person, and the eating of match heads became a common way of committing suicide.

Public outcry led to a ban of white phosphorus matches in many countries and to the introduction of “safety matches.” These used red phosphorus on a striking surface separate from the matchstick itself. You see these today on a common box of matches.

Bonus Trivia: Anyone who wants to geek out on the history of light and lighting should check out Bill Williams’ helpful site.

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