Ches. City man col­lects match­books of his­tory

Cecil Whig - - LOCAL - By ED OKONOWICZ

Spe­cial to the Whig

— If you want to know about Ch­e­sa­peake City, one per­son to see is Lee Collins, 77, a na­tive and life­long res­i­dent of the small canal town. But Collins — a re­tired Chrysler Cor­po­ra­tion ad­min­is­tra­tor, U.S. Marine veteran and town politi­cian — doesn’t want peo­ple wto mis­take him for an his­to­rian.

“I’m more ac­cu­rately a col­lec­tor of his­tory,” he ex­plained, “but I’m not a for­mal his­to­rian. I col­lect a lot of items re­lated to lo­cal his­tory. Learn­ing a bit about lo­cal his­tory comes along with the col­lect­ing.”

A vis­i­tor to Collins’ south Ch­e­sa­peake City home might con­sider that a mod­est un­der­state­ment, since his var­i­ous pri­vate col­lec­tions cover a wide range of items associated with the his­toric town’s col­or­ful past.

“Any­thing to do with the Ch­e­sa­peake City,” he ex­plained, “such as old busi­nesses — and their signs, bot­tles, mugs, ad­ver­tise­ments, wood carv­ings, egg car­tons.”

And pic­ture post­cards, he added, point­ing to stacks of or­ga­nized binders and fold­ers, which each pre­serve hun­dreds of images cap­tur­ing peo­ple and places now long gone.

But then there’s his other post­card col­lec­tion, called “Hold-ToLights.” These an­tiques fea­ture hid­den images and se­cret scenes, which only ap­pear when the card is held near a lamp or flame. They were very pop­u­lar in the early 1900s, Collins said, and were pro­duced in for­eign coun­tries.

Mov­ing across the room, Collins pointed to an­other cab­i­net, which held 10, one-of-a-kind, cus­tom­crafted ce­ramic repli­cas of pri­vate homes and well-known pub­lic build­ings lo­cated in the county’s col­or­ful canal town.

“They were made by my neigh­bor, Patty McCool,” Collins said, adding, “I might be the only per­son that has a com­plete set.”

He men­tioned the col­lect­ing bug bit him about 50 years ago, when he started gath­er­ing vin­tage, glass and ce­ramic elec­tric in­su­la­tors, which grew in size over time.

At this point in the in­ter­view we paused and agreed to shift our fo­cus to the ob­ject of my visit: Collins’ mas­sive as­sort­ment


of match­book cov­ers.

That’s right, those small, folded, card­board give­aways used as ad­ver­tise­ments by small busi­nesses and large cor­po­ra­tions.

Be­fore I could be­gin ask­ing ques­tions, Collins gave me some print outs of back­ground in­for­ma­tion on the un­usual topic, plus a re­cent bul­letin of the Rath­camp Match­cover So­ci­ety (RMS): The Old­est Phillu­menic Or­ga­ni­za­tion In The World.

Collins’ prep ma­te­rial pro­vided a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing facts for some­one to­tally ig­no­rant of match­book ac­cu­mu­lat­ing:

• The first phos­pho­rous fric­tion matches were man­u­fac­tured in the U.S. in 1836.

• At its peak, 12.5 tril­lion match­books cir­cu­lated in the U.S. in one sin­gle year.

• Joshua Pussey in­vented the match­book in 1892.

• There are nearly 30 match­cover col­lect­ing clubs in the U.S. and Canada, plus oth­ers over­seas.

• Two top col­lec­tors in­clude a Canadian phillu­menist with over 200,000 match­books from around the world, and a Cal­i­for­nian who has ac­quired more than 2 mil­lion cov­ers.

Collins was quick to point out his col­lec­tion was nowhere near that large. In fact, he had no idea how many match­book cov­ers he pos­sessed. But there were a lot. In or­ga­nized al­bums un­der plas­tic cov­ers; in draw­ers of cab­i­nets, grouped by themes and cat­e­gories; in bins, wait­ing sort­ing and place­ment; and in large plas­tic stor­age tubs pend­ing ini­tial ex­am­i­na­tion.

A mod­er­ate size plas­tic or­ga­nizer, with about a dozen small draw­ers, held cat­e­gories of cov­ers he had cre­ated: Hol­i­days, Mil­i­tary, Sports, World War II/Pa­tri­otic, States, Cities, Animals, Food and Drink, Clubs and Po­lit­i­cal.

“There’s no limit to the ar­eas and top­ics you can spe­cial­ize in,” Collins said. “Some col­lec­tors pick one spe­cialty, and they can de­cide to spread out as far as they want. There are a num­ber of clubs in the U.S. And there’s a lot of his­tory in each one (match­book).”

Open­ing a thick binder, he dis­played a num­ber of match­book cov­ers pro­duced by lo­cal busi­nesses — some still op­er­at­ing, but many long gone. To some, these small free match­book give­aways could be the only rem­nant of the past.

A very small sam­ple of his lo­cal col­lec­tion in­cludes: Schae­fer’s, Dock­side, Whar­ton’s Inn, Golden Skil­let, Manor Inn, Ch­e­sa­peake Inn, Swiss Inn, Steel’s Mo­tor Court, Wes­ley’s, Lit­tle Elk Inn, Weaver’s Steak House and Restau­rant, EBT Elk­ton Bank­ing and Trust Co., Howard Ho­tel, Bomba’s Madi­son House and Lafayette Inn.

Collins had no hes­i­ta­tion nam­ing his most trea­sured find: A match­cover for Gor­man’s Ser­vice Sta­tion in North Ch­e­sa­peake City, so old that it ad­ver­tised the ser­vices of a wheel­wright and black­smith.

Costs of match­books, he said, can range from a few dol­lars to $20, to over $100. But it’s still a hobby that peo­ple can get into for a rea­son­able price.

Like other ob­jects, the pop­u­lar­ity and avail­abil­ity of match­books has changed over time. Match­book man­u­fac­tur­ing peaked dur­ing the 1940s and 1950s. Its de­cline be­gan in the 1970s, partly be­cause of the ap­pear­ance of cheap, dis­pos­able lighters along with health con­cerns and anti-smok­ing cam­paigns.

Re­cently, match­books have be­gun to regain some of their pop­u­lar­ity as a retro ad­ver­tis­ing item, par­tic­u­larly in high-end restau- rants and pri­vate clubs.

To most non-col­lec­tors, the match­book is a dis­pos­able, cheap item, not wor­thy of sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion. Ex­perts and col­lec­tors, how­ever, see much more. They can name all the ele­ments of its anatomy: front, back, sad­dle, footer, comb, striker and manu­mark (man­u­fac­turer’s iden­tity). They can tell you the year (1973) the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or­dered the striker moved from the cover’s front to its back for safety con­cerns. There also are dif­fer­ent sizes, some larger or smaller than the most com­mon, 20-match match­book.

Collins said years ago com­pa­nies de­voted sig­nif­i­cant cre­ative at­ten­tion to match­books, mak­ing them col­or­ful and artis­tic, as well and util­i­tar­ian. “It wasn’t just an ad­ver­tise­ment,” he said, “but a work of art.”

While match­books are still be­ing pro­duced, it’s the older ones that com­mand par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion.

“Peo­ple who know I col­lect them,” Collins said, “will call and say they have some match­books and ask if I want to look at them. A lot of peo­ple find them when they’re clean­ing out their grand­fa­ther’s house. Usu­ally, they just throw them away. If you’re a col­lec­tor, you try to get to them be­fore they get tossed.”

Collins ad­mit­ted most peo­ple re­act with sur­prise when they learn about his in­ter­est in this par­tic­u­lar ob­ject. He said, “I ex­plain to them it’s a snap­shot in time. It might be the only mem­ory left of some­thing you don’t have a pic­ture of.”

Match­books also prove the old say­ing: “There’s a col­lec­tor out there some­where for any­thing you can think of.”

When asked what he finds most en­joy­able about his hobby, Collins gave an an­swer of­ten re­peated by his col­leagues: “It’s all about the ex­cite­ment of the hunt. To find some­thing real old, or that there are not many of.”

Please Note: In co­op­er­a­tion with the His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety of Ce­cil County, a web page fea­tur­ing Lee Collins’ wealth of in­for­ma­tion about Ch­e­sa­peake City and the area —in­clud­ing photos, his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, doc­u­ments, class lists, and more — is ac­ces­si­ble at www. ce­cil­his­­peakecity/

To sug­gest a Ce­cil col­lec­tor to pro­file, email let­ters@ce­cil­


Lee Collins poses be­side some of the many Ch­e­sa­peake City col­lectibles in his home.

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