Friction matches were invented in the 1830s. On occasion, these sulfur-tipped matches would combust, due to the heat of friction, without any warning. Vesta cases, or matchboxes, were meant to prevent this explosion from happening by keeping the matches dry and safe. The idea of a vesta case stemmed from the snuffbox, and typically had a rectangular shape, with a flip-top lid, and a serrated edge at the base used to strike the match. Some pieces were built more extravagantly and held cigar cutters or a place for sovereigns.
Victorians made the vessels for these short matches into a fashion statement. These small containers were designed for status and became a normal part of the dress code. Men were the ones who typically carried them around, at the end of a Double Albert chain, or in the pocket of a waistcoat. Cases with semi-clad women weren’t uncommon, but they were hidden inside pockets until offered to another gentleman who needed a light. The designs on vestas varied wildly as advertising on them was quite popular. Logos, crests, sport scenes, and precious jewels donned these cases.
This antique Art Nouveau silver vesta was handcrafted around 1890. It bears a repousse floral motif on both sides. This rectangular vessel opens toward the top and closes tightly. It measures 47.5 x 34 x 10 mm and weighs 16.4 grams. It has been acid tested and bears no marks.
Most people of the Victorian and Edwardian eras carried a vesta made of tin, gunmetal, or brass. The upper class walked around with cases of silver and gold, much like this one. Matches weren’t just used to like a cigarette, they were useful for stoves, lanterns, pipes, fireplaces. They came in different sizes and the smaller matches were carried around while the larger ones were kept at home in a larger vesta case known as ‘tabletop matchsafes’.
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