The Fine Art of Match Safes on Display

Names like Faberge, Cartier and Tiffany & Co., once dominated market.

In the mid-19th century, the small utilitarian cases made to hold the modern striking match burgeoned into an array of imaginative designs, inventive techniques, and seemingly endless subjects in miniature that mirrored the styles of fine art, as well as the history and daily life of the period. On view through March 15 at Delaware Art Museum is “Portable Fire: A History of Match Safes,” a community-curated Outlooks exhibition featuring more than 300 match safes. The exhibition includes 60 rare examples and a broad selection of match safes mass-produced by the rapidly developing technologies of the late 19th century. Until the mid-1920s, when automatic lighters made match safes largely obsolete, names like Fabergé, Cartier and Tiffany & Co. dominated an international market for the cases, which were usually under 3 inches high. Widely marketed to their primary users—men and, increasingly, women who smoked—many match safes were made with precious metals, brilliant gems and colorful enamels. Like tiny canvases, they often featured diminutive portraits and scenes ranging from tennis players to soldiers to fashionable ladies. Some challenged the user with visual puzzles and hidden compartments.
The guest curators for this exhibition are Neil Shapiro, author of “Gorham Match Safes, Exceptional Match Safes,” and numerous articles for the International Match Safes Association Newsletter and Silver Magazine; and George Sparacio, founding president of the International Match Safe Association and owner of an extensive reference library related to match safes.


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