They’re known as “phillumenists” or “lovers of light.” They’re also known as the Windy City Matchbook Club, and they meet, religiously, on the first Sunday of every month at the Indian Boundary Park field house to indulge in what is said to be the world’s largest hobby next to stamp collecting: collecting match covers and matchboxes.
Seymour Shedlow, an intense, dark-haired man of 45 whose license plates say “MATCHS,” started the club with Bob Cigrang, 37, a traveling salesman, in July of 1985. It’s the only group of its kind in the Chicago area, and to get it off the ground Cigrang and Shedlow sent out a few hundred postcards to members of the Rathkamp Matchcover Society, a national organization of collectors. The Windy City membership is now about 160 and reaches into Indiana and Wisconsin, but only 20 or 30 usually come to the monthly meetings.
One of them is Charles Bressler, of Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Dressed in striped shorts and a blue sleeveless T-shirt, Bressler, who claims to have about a million match covers, got into collecting in a circuitous fashion.
“I don’t smoke but I’d go on all these dates and carry matchbooks with me in order to light cigarettes for girls. When I’d come home I’d throw them all in my drawer and eventually I realized that I should start collecting them, which I’ve been doing now for the past 20 years.” Bressler won an award at the national Rathkamp convention for a set of Milwaukee Brewers match covers, a different matchbook autographed by each and every one of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. He runs ads in newspapers and buys entire collections, usually paying two or three cents a cover. “People often collect match covers in themes–movie stars, playing cards, animals, babies, windmills, lobsters, or, say, one from every Holiday Inn in the world, since hotels and restaurants are a common source. I’m starting my own new category: bugs. So far I have about 15, including spiders, caterpillars, butterflies, and a honeybee.”
Seymour Shedlow came to collecting through his wife, a hairdresser, one of whose customers collected matchbooks. Shedlow did his best to oblige her. “I’d be picking up matchbooks for this customer from hotels and restaurants and I’d ask her, should I get three or four? Or, when I went to a special hotel, should I get 100? And she’d say sure, because a collector can always use extras for trading. And I just sort of fell into collecting for myself. It’s a funny thing, though, because I’m not a smoker. Sixty percent of our club members aren’t smokers, but 40 percent are heavy smokers. Since 51 percent of North Americans are supposed to be smokers, these matchbook covers really get around.”
Collectors from as far away as Texas put want ads in Shedlow’s bimonthly newsletter requesting covers with roses or cats on them or something as specific as a Portuguese set of American astronauts. Want ads aside, the newsletter is a roundup of upcoming events, fresh sources, and general news, plus information on the achievements of members and their families, such as Shedlow’s 14-year-old daughter’s version of Romeo and Juliet, which she called “Boneo and Chewelet,” the story of a dog and a cat who fall in love.
Like any other collectibles, matchbook covers are steeped in lore. Originally, matchbooks were made with the striking surface (called the striker) inside the cover, above the matches, but for safety purposes the striker was moved outside and guarded by the warning “close cover before striking.” The public wouldn’t buy matchbooks, not even for two books a penny, so their advertising carried them. In the 1920s they became collectibles, but they weren’t saved as often as can and bottle labels, which were the rage then. In 1936 inveterate collector W.W. Wilson urged the Blue Moon Club, a label club he belonged to, to grant admission to matchbook collectors. The club refused, so Wilson seceded and started the United Matchonians. In 1941, the Rathkamp Matchcover Society was founded.
Matchbook collecting has its own terminology. A “flat,” also known as a “virgin,” is a match cover that has been “shucked” relieved of its staple and matches. A collector first shucks and then categorizes his matchbooks by subject matter, by size (which includes “hummingbirds”–matchbooks of eight lights–and “fisherman’s specials”–foot-long matchbooks holding 300 matches), by era, and by maker. Usually the flats are put into plastic albums for display, but at least one Windy City Matchbook member, Leo Machabanski, prefers to leave the matches in his books. “I have eight or nine wires running across my walls and I hang my books right over them.
It seems that everyone present at the meeting has an unusual or bizarre cover to show: particularly memorable were a sepia photo of Donna Rice in a bathing suit from the Girlie Matchcover Club in Ohio, and an old personalized matchbook bearing James Hoffa’s name, the Teamsters’ logo, and the motto “Security Through Unionism.”
There’s not a lot of money to be made or lost in the hobby. Bob Cigrang said that the most he’d ever paid for a cover was $15. “A lot of people call up wanting to sell their collections but 90 percent of the time what they have is pretty common. The nice thing about the club is that a lot of the old-timers like to help the younger people just to keep covers in circulation. Me, I like to save pictures of Indians. I have 400 or 500 of them. And I’m always looking to trade for more.”
It would seem that one person’s garbage is another person’s gold. And beyond the simplicity of collecting there’s a certain pride in finding a dimly lit corner and claiming it for yourself.
Ann Taske, who’s 71, joined the club about a year ago. “Why do people collect things? It seems like insecurity, doesn’t it? But I think it’s just the joy of ownership, and it’s educational. I worked as an airline employee overseas for years and years and I’d just save these matchbooks I acquired by keeping them in cans. That didn’t seem very safe so I joined this club to learn what to do with them. And I learned–I learned to take the matches out!”