Spark a Match, Light a Lamp

A recent news item caught my eye. It said that the price of a matchbox is to go up after 14 years. And what is the price hike? A whole rupee more—from Rs 1/- to Rs 2/-! The last time the price was revised was in 2007 when the rate went up from 50 paise for a matchbox to Rs1/-. In a time when prices of foodstuff and fuel are in the ‘hundreds’ range, and spiralling every day, it is unbelievable that there is even an item in the market that costs as little as Rs 2/-

Yes, this is the ubiquitous, but not really noticed, little box that we need so many times a day, for so many uses—a matchbox.

The early history of the matchbox, as we know it, in India is not well documented. It appears that one of the early indigenous match manufacturers in India was the Gujarat Islam Match Factory founded in 1895 in Ahmedabad. However there was no commercially successful manufacture of matches in the country till 1921. In fact before World War 1 most of India’s matches were imported, mainly from Sweden, Austria and Japan. In the early 1900s, about half of the total imports of matches came from Japan. After World War I there was a struggle for supremacy in the Indian matchbox market between the Japanese and the Swedish who were represented by the Swedish Match Company

Around the same period some Japanese immigrants settled in Calcutta and began manufacturing matches. The locals also picked up the skills and small match factories came up in and around Calcutta. Following World War I, many manufacturers migrated to the state of Tamil Nadu where the climate was dry, labour was cheap, and raw materials were easily available. Starting as small family-based units, match-making continued as a mainly small-scale cottage industry, but over time, expanded into a booming industry. Today, the Match Kings of South India as they are called, supply the bulk of the country’s matchbox needs, employing around four lakh people, directly or indirectly, of which 90% are women. Sivakasi of the fireworks manufacturing fame is also the home of match production. Fourteen raw materials are needed to make matchsticks and matchboxes, including red phosphorus, potassium chlorate, and sulphur as well as wax, paper board, and splints.

In 1950 a matchbox cost 5 Paise, in 1980 it went up to 25 paise, in 1994 to 50 paise, and in 2008 to Rs 1/-. Considering that the cost of all the raw materials has increased manifold, the matchbox seems to have defied all laws of inflation!

While the economics of the industry is about numbers, the labels of the matchboxes reveal fascinating facets of history and culture. These are the aspects that fascinate matchbox collectors or phillumenists as they are called. It is from their collections that that many interesting stories emerge.

Some early matchbox labels which bore the sign Made in Sweden had pictures of Mughal emperors on the labels. It is believed that the royal family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat commissioned a special matchbox for their personal use during British rule.

During the freedom movement Swadeshi matchboxes appeared in the market, carrying slogans (in different Indian languages) extolling boycott of foreign goods and promoting swadeshi. These were often confiscated by the British. India’s independence was celebrated with matchbox labels carrying the tricolour, and pictures of people who had played a role in the struggle for independence. In the 1960s, popular matchbox labels included pictures of ‘matinee idols’ of the day—popular film stars, as well as a number of sports superstars. Matchbox labels have also carried pictures of brands like Pepsi, Fanta, Thums Up, Pan Parag, Frooti, Parle, Nescafe, Vat 69, Kitkat, Complan, Amul, Lux, as well as of TVs, cameras and computers (most likely not with permission from the companies, but definitely free publicity for them!) to name a few.

A souvenir of my phillumeny phase

Phillumeny or the hobby of collecting different match-related items: matchboxes, matchbox labels, matchbooks, match covers, etc. has its own band of aficionados, perhaps not as large as stamp or coin collectors. I went through a brief period of phillumeny in my college days. In the days when smoking in public places was not taboo, restaurants and hotels had interesting matchbooks, and for us these were great souvenirs of places visited, and memorable events!

Economics and commerce, history and culture–the matchbox has its little niche in many subjects. But perhaps the most innovative use of the matchbox has been in the teaching of basic science. In the words of Arvind Gupta one of India’s pioneering simple science educators who has used the matchbox in an amazing number of ways:  In the seventies a pioneering science programme in India attempted to revitalize the learning of science in village schools which had no science labs. The shift was from the chalk-and-talk method to hands-on, on making things with simple humble material available in the village. The hunt was on for low-cost, locally available very affordable things to do science.

The matchbox surprisingly emerged as a STAR. Being mass produced in a factory the matchbox confirmed to certain standard dimensions. The length of the matchbox is very close to 5-cm (2- inches) – a very good estimate of length. You could put six matchboxes back-to-back to make 30-cm (1-foot). The weight of the new matchbox was very close to 10-gms. Ten new matchsticks (not burnt) weight about 1-gm and the weight of a single matchstick is very close to 0.1-gm! Paint the matchbox drawer with some oil to make it water proof. Fill it with water and the drawer holds roughly 20-ml of water. Pour out 5 drawers of water in a bottle to make 100-ml. The humble matchbox becomes a good measure for volume. So, using a universally available matchbox, children could get a good feel of length, weight and volume – all very basic entities of any science curriculum!

How many things can you fit in a matchbox? 20…. 30…. 100? This exercise was given to children many years back. One child actually managed to pack in a whopping 250 things inside a matchbox! Just look around for small minute things – a mustard seed, hair, thread, cumin, moong dal etc. While doing this project children searched for the smallest artifacts in their vicinity and they came up with surprises which are difficult to imagine! They really had a good peep in the world of small things! Science is all about keeping our eyes open and looking at similarities, forms, patterns in the world around us. Science in short, is the discovery of order.


As our markets and homes get flooded with numerous new gadgets and geegaws, we tend to forget some of the simplest but most versatile household items. As we celebrate the festival of lights let us give thanks for the small things that make our life better and easier. Let us spark a match and light a lamp.

Happy Diwali!