Ches. City man collects matchbooks of history
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. cecilhistory.org/chesapeakecity/
To suggest a Cecil collector to profile, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lee Collins poses beside some of the many Chesapeake City collectibles in his home.