In the early days of cigarette smoking, long before health warnings and stop smoking campaigns, anyone hooked on nicotine had to contend with that scourge of the smoker – where to find a ‘light’. Matters improved c1840 when friction matches were invented and it became possible to ‘strike a light’. However, these matches were hazardous – they could combust without warning. From the late 19th century, they became known as ‘vestas’ after the Roman goddess of the hearth. As smoking became increasingly fashionable towards the end of the century, small rectangular boxes with rounded corners were made specifically to hold them.
Adapted from snuffboxes, these vesta cases or ‘matchsafes’ had Serrated strikers on which to light one’s matches and closely fitting lids to prevent them from combusting prematurely. Some vesta cases have double compartments for matches, or are combined with other objects such as pen knives, cigar cutters, or stamp holders. Although they were made from a variety of metals and wood, most were made from silver, the insides often gilded to prevent the phosphorous match heads reacting with the silver.
From c1890, Birmingham was the major center of production in Britain, though the best quality workmanship often came from London where famous makers, such as Sampson Mordan & Co. and Henry William Dee, produced fine enameled cases. These cases become more desirable if the image is rare and of high quality and can make over £8,000. Many cases produced in the Victorian and Edwardian periods were enameled with erotic scenes of seated or reclining nudes, and these are now particularly sought after. Other common forms of decoration included Engraving and chasing.
Vesta cases were produced in a wide variety of shapes. Novelty forms were common from the late 19th century. Some of the most desirable are in the shape of birds or animals, or sporting equipment, such as golf balls. Such cases have cross-market interest, appealing to golf enthusiasts as well as collectors of vesta cases, and can fetch £200-400 ($400-800).
The production of vesta cases ceased after World War 1 when vestas were made superfluous by the introduction of the more durable and functional petrol lighter.