For Want of a Match

The red tip fell apart as it struck the worn black edge of the box. It simply crumbled, so that nothing was left except a bare wooden stick without a flame. It was my last match.

My fingers were not frozen, as the character’s fingers in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” were. The man tries so desperately to get his matches to burn. His feet are wet, his fire was doused by falling snow from the tree above, and he grasps a whole bunch of matches in his frozen hands in an attempt to light them. He succeeds in lighting the matches; but they all fall into the snow, extinguishing, leaving him to an icy death.

Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl faces a similar fate. She is not alone in the Yukon Territory like the desperate man above. She must sell her matches before she goes home, however, or she will face a beating from her father. She lights match after match to stay warm on a wintry New Year’s Eve, until finally her grandmother comes down to take her up to heaven. Her frozen body is found with a burnt bundle of matches in her hand and a smile upon her face.

I was only trying to light a candle. That last match was for want, not necessity.

Do you remember when you learned how to strike a match? My father taught me when I wasn’t more than seven or eight years old. I had to learn to be sure and quick and to strike the match firmly against the black strip, then move my fingers away from the flame quickly lest they get scorched. I soon become the family candle-lighter. I would light the candles we had on our dining room table in the evenings before dinner, which added a nice little touch to our family meal.

I used to have a stockpile of matchboxes. Matchbooks from weddings, white with little gold bells on the front, the happy couple’s names embossed on the cover. Boxes of matches from bars and restaurants, free advertising placed in the ashtrays. I would take them even though I didn’t smoke; I had plenty of other uses for a good box of matches.

It is now illegal to smoke in restaurants and bars in Illinois. Matchboxes, to my dismay, have all but disappeared. Including from my kitchen cabinet. I scrounged around and found a long-tipped, liquid-fueled lighter.

Lighting candles with a lighter just isn’t the same. There’s not that satisfying scratchy feel you get when lighting a match. A lighter doesn’t have that same, good sulfur-y smell. My aunt always keeps a book of matches in the powder room next to her kitchen. A good guest, after using the facilities, will light a match, the overpowering smell the whole purpose of lighting that match. A lighter just wouldn’t do.

I suppose I’ll have to give in and go buy some matchboxes instead of getting them for free.

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33 Responses to For Want of a Match

  1. I'm so glad you mentioned the smell at the end of this post, because that is my personal favorite part about matches. I was always that teenager who loved to play with matches. (I never set anything on fire that wasn't supposed to be on fire though, thankfully!) This was a nice nostalgic post.
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  2. During a recent power outage, we realized we did not have any matches. And then we realized how long it had been since we had any. I do miss that smell – I used to love lighting my cigarettes with matches over lighters. Now I don't smoke, but I still miss the matches.
    My recent post A Long, Full Life.

  3. I have just always used lighters. I hadn't thought about the nostalgia that existed with matchbooks!

  4. My kids loved to be the candle lighter and since they are older, they rember the dosage of match lighting…their favorite. Nothing like that smell. Great post Ginny!

  5. I don't know when I learnt to strike a match. But I do have matches in the house. Somewhere! Because I do agree with you about lighting a candle with a match: it just makes it more real, more authentic, just better!
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  6. I can't believe how timely this is because yesterday I ran out of matches after having oodles of them that lasted me about 25 years! Now I don't know what to do to get them, and I'm like you. Who wants to light birthday cakes and candles with a lighter? It's really not the same at ALL!

    I love, love, love and LOVE some more your memories and recountings of those stories which actually make me want to read them again.
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  7. I love the smell of matches too. I just light it and blow it out just for the smell. I remember using all the matches in the box and putting them back in and pretending I knew nothing about it in chemistry lab :D

  8. I don't remember learning how to strike a match, but I do remember learning how to whistle and the alley I was in and the friend I was with.

    I used to read Little Match Girl to my class at xmas. The kids were always too sad though, so I stopped.
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  9. Great post! My mom taught us how to light a match when we were young too – maybe around 6 or 7. She's normally really risk averse, but it was for religious purposes, and that trumped her nervousness. We've been lighting hanukah candles with our kids lately and I keep wondering when I'll let them actually strike a match.

    Lots of great imagery here and it evoked some of my own terrific memories. Great writing!
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  10. Ah, the hopeless romantic in me loves the cardboard and wooden matches. The klutz in me has learned to accept the liquid lighter. But very reluctantly!

  11. I agree with you about lighting a candle with a match. There is also no smoking in restaurants, bar and hotels in Michigan so they are a little hard to come by here too… except at the nearby casino where there is smoking. My dad taught me how to light stick matches with my fingernail and striking it on my jeans. Only burned my finger a couple of times! :-)
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  12. I couldn't agree with you more! I finally used my last matchbox match this past summer to light a candle and now I have to use the Aim and Flame, which just isn't the same. I love your description of the "scratchy feel" and "sulfur-y smell" — those are the exact same things I love about lighting matches, plus that sound it makes!
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  13. Cool post! Since I am a sabbath observer, every Friday night I light candles. When I am at home, I use a lighter for the same reasons you mentioned. No free matches from weddings, restaurants, and bars. But when I am at my parents house, my mom still buys matches, so I get that satisfying strike, and I love it too.
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  14. From the first sentence I assumed you were talking about a marker or pen. I liked the surprise of being wrong. You should have your own matchbooks printed and give them as gifts or with gifts…a trademark of sorts.

  15. I used to collect matchbooks too, but they went by the wayside in a move at some point. I'll still take them in restaurants if I see them. I like lighting candles with the long matches though – maybe I'm not as fast as you!
    My recent post The Green Bag

  16. Interesting take on a love affair with matches! I prefer wooden ones to matchbook matches every day — I think I fear getting my fingers burned.

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