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With its rectangular and pocket-friendly form, a matchbox reminds one of a popular contemporary object: the smartphone. Apart from physical similarities, the two also have much in common in the world of advertising. Even before the proliferation of smartphones led to the popularity of “mobile advertising,” matchboxes plastered with advertisements once offered an affordable and portable means of marketing too.

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Known as “advertising matches,” these petite boxes — which included matchbooks that flipped open from the top instead of sliding apart like a drawer in a matchbox — first and foremost provided a functional need. In a time when lighters and gas appliances had yet to become commonplace, they supplied an everyday necessity to light up a fire. Such was the case in Singapore prior to the 1980s, when households commonly used matches to light up oil lamps or charcoal stoves. The matchboxes that contained this essential good thus promised to reach a wide audience, and businesses eagerly advertised on boxes that were given away to potential customers.

Both advertising matches and their generic counterparts were originally imported into colonial Singapore from factories around the world, including Sweden, Albania, East Germany, Hong Kong, and Japan. The total reliance on imports became an issue when Singapore began its march towards independence in the 1960s. As part of an industrialisation plan, the government introduced import quotas on a variety of goods, including matches, to spur the growth of the local economy. In 1966, the first match factory opened in the newly independent nation.

Federal Match Co. Ltd was a joint venture between the British company Wood Hall Trust Ltd and local businessmen. The company touted its ability to “supply the full domestic requirements of Singapore and meet regional export orders” — estimated to be around 10 million matches daily. Federal Match’s monopoly ended with the introduction of two new manufacturers in 1969: Singapore Safety Match Manufacturers and Golden Light Matches Manufacturers Ltd.

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Although this trio were protected by an import tariff, their total production capacity exceeded the estimated monthly domestic demand of 7.2 million boxes. Their attempts to penetrate the export market proved to be difficult, too. The solution was producing advertising matchboxes. And this became even more attractive after Singapore passed the Smoking Act of 1970, which prohibited cigarette and tobacco advertising in conventional media. The manufacturers began touting advertising matches as an affordable replacement (costing only 3-cents a box) and promised exposure to other smokers as matches were essential for smoking.

Other businesses that took up advertising matches were typically food and beverage establishments, or those in hospitality and entertainment. These were places that provided matches to customers to light up. Other clients of advertising matches included corporations and salons which offered them as souvenirs. And often, matchboxes and matchbooks served as business cards. The cardboard boxes averaging around 2.2 by 1.4 inches, typically featured the name and logo of the establishment as well as contact details. These were laid out in attractive forms across the covers, often leaving the edges as strikers for the matches. The designs were mostly created by advertising and creative agencies as part of a larger marketing campaign.

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The drive for sales led manufacturers to produce matchboxes and matchbooks designed for collectors known as phillumenists too. From 1970, Golden Light Matches and avid matchbook collector Tay Thian Song began putting out matchbooks depicting tourist attractions in Singapore. They followed up with a series featuring local stamps and another of birds from Jurong Bird Park. The latter even won second prize in the advertising section of the annual Rathkamp Matchcover Society exhibition in San Diego.

Singapore Safety Match, which was renamed Central Matches around 1972, also started manufacturing limited “Art Matches” featuring local scenes and Chinese zodiac symbols to meet the new “craze in Singapore to collect match boxes,” as described by a newspaper in 1973. One of the most striking was a set of matchboxes to commemorate the 7th South East Asian Peninsular Games held in Singapore for the first time in 1973. Each featured a pictogram of one of the 16 sporting events and the entire set was sold in a specially designed box for S$2. 

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Despite these efforts by local match manufacturers, the industry never took off. Barely five years after the first factory opened, the government reported that it collected just S$275,000 duty from matches manufactured in Singapore, which was “far below expectations.” It speculated that this was due to the falling demand as lighters became popular, and as a result, food establishments stopped supplying free matches to customers. Local match manufacturers were also not optimistic about the future of the industry, stating that Singapore only had room for one of them.

Matches continued to lose relevance. As more people resettled into modern public housing apartments in Singapore, many began leaving behind the traditional kerosene, wood, and charcoal cookers, which required matches. Instead, they opted for those powered by gas. The rise of such modern appliances ultimately extinguished the use of matches at home. Between 1975 and 1994, the manufacturers closed one after another due to stagnating sales and rising costs.

Despite their diminutive size, or precisely because of it, advertising matches made matches and graphic design accessible to many. A perfect union of form and function. They may no longer be a part of our everyday lives, but their graphic forms are a striking reminder that design is all around us — even in a matchbox that fits within your palm.

This essay is an edited excerpt from Striking! Advertising Matches from Singapore, a new match-shaped book exploring collector Yeo Hong Eng’s collection of vintage advertising matchbooks. It is co-published by In Plain Words and Temporary Press for the Singapore Graphic Archives.

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By Peter

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