Pocket match safes, called pocket vestas in England, were designed to safely hold early friction matches, which were known to ignite unexpectedly when carried loosely in the pocket or purse. Although these handy containers are rarely seen today, from 1850 to 1915 match safes were extremely popular.
For roughly 65 years, manufacturers on every continent made them in countless shapes, sizes and styles. They were sold everywhere; from cheap souvenir stalls and the inexpensive novelty stores to highly sophisticated jewelry shops. Many of the first match safes were made out of tin and held a celluloid panel displaying an advertisement, a political endorsement, or an image of a famous tourist attraction. Beyond rectangles and squares, match safes could be found in the shape of animals, insects, boats, beer bottles, and body parts. Clever manufacturers made match safes with dual purposes – not only did they safely hold matches, but they doubled as a whistle, a coin holder, a cigar cutter, a watch, and even a pocketknife. Some match safes were treated like little canvases – tiny sporting scenes, beautiful rural landscapes, and remarkable nautical images – all hand-painted with fine enamel.
Since the match safe cut across every segment of society, from nobility on down to the ordinary workingman, it is no surprise that these convenient cases ranged from the fabulous and elegant to the absurdly cheap and vulgar. These forgotten pieces of history can be found in a wide variety of materials – from inexpensive tin and brass to platinum, gold and silver, even exotic materials like ivory, tortoise shell, and mother of pearl. Today, as was true in their heyday, the most coveted match safes are those created by brilliant designers like Tiffany, Gorham, and Fabergé. From advertisements and souvenirs to highly collectible enamels to multi-function match safes to those embellished with jewels and designed by the finest craftsman, The Knohl Collection, with approximately 21,000 pieces, currently has the largest known accumulation of match safes in the world.