Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quest for Fire

There's a whole multiverse (literally!) of cool old cigarette lighters out there, all of which are perfectly suitable for time-transcending troublemakers such as ourselves. The above one, cleverly concealed in a pocketwatch housing, was found on Pewtersmith's flickr. A particular favorite is the World War I military lighters fashioned out of spent .30-caliber cartridge casings. Here's one, spotted on Zenbeer's flickr:

The first cigarette lighters were called Döbereiner's Lamps, invented in Germany by Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner in 1823. These worked by way of a charmingly Rube Goldberg sequence of events: zinc metal reacts with sulfuric acid in a small glass jar, producing hydrogen gas which is released when a valve is opened. This jet of hydrogen bursts into flame when ignited by platinum.

Lighters are swell, and I own zillions of 'em, from antiques to mid-century Zippos to cheesy plastic contemporaries - but what I really prefer to light my stogies with is good old-old-old-fashioned wooden matches. Kitchen matches in particular are dripping with mythic resonance, and dammit, they smell great. (I am a card-carrying Philluminist and love all things matchy.)

The Diamond Match Company has nice old-timey matches that can be found in any supermarket, but they also make hard-to-find "strike anywhere matches", which is how all old matches actually used to be. Once upon a time, the white phosphorus on matchheads was so sensitive you could rub a match against almost any surface and make it go off, and the sudden poof of flame could be quite powerful and flashy compared to the wimpy matches of the 21st century.

Ever wondered why people in the movies were managing to strike matches in weird places? In Stalag 17, for example, William Holden lights a match against someone's razor-stubbled chin; and the high flammability of those good old-timey matches was also a key part of that film's plot, with an American soldier devising a time-bomb by nestling a lit cigarette amongst a pack of matches. When the cig burned down to all those volatile white phosphorus matchheads, KABOOM!

In Miller's Crossing, Tom contemptuously lights a match off a policeman's chest, which is believable since the film takes place during prohibition. Not so much with The Breakfast Club, though: Bender lights a match off his teeth, and then lights one off his shoe, which isn't possible with modern matches unless he's gone to the trouble to cut the striking board off a pack of matches and glue it to the edge of his sole. (Hmmm... that's not a bad idea actually...)

A zillion cinematic tough guys in old noir films would conceal a strike-anywhere match in their hand, and with a one-handed flip of the wrist, ignite it against their thumbnail and bring it to their cig, making it appear to modern tv-watchers that they somehow magically just conjured up fire out of nowhere.

Swan Vestas, pictured above, are a British strike-anywhere match said to be more powerful and more like the old classic formula than Diamond's. I'd love to try these out, doubly so for the fact that Victorian burlesque drag-king Vesta Tilley took her showbiz name from the term "Vesta" (a 19th century brand of matches that was so popular, it ended up becoming a generic term).

1 comment:

  1. "Fire, fire, fire!" Tee hee! What a great post! As it allows us to see at night, flame is one of the elements that make us uniquely Human.

    Vesta is also the Greek deity of the Hearth. One of the things those Vestal Wyrgynos were doing was keeping the flame. Very important if you're trying to light a cook/hearth-fire, et cetera.