Matchboxes galore

Matchboxes galore
Especially in Tomar – and Shanghai

It is in Portugal that one of the larger monuments showing the determination of one man can be found. In the Museu dos Fósforos a private collection of 43,000 matchboxes is on display and another 16,000 matchbox covers can be found assembled in scores of books. The collection was received as a donation by the municipality of Tomar in 1980 and granted its own museum at the Avenida General Bernardo Faria, 100 steps straight ahead when coming from Tomar’s railway station, on the left. The museum is worth a visit for two reasons: its huge and fascinating collection; and its location in a most adorable courtyard, a part of the Convento de São Francisco next to the church of the same name, not an extravagant building but an interesting historic site nevertheless.


The collector who started what some people might say is a display of “almost ridiculously obsessive human nature” was a world-traveling yet humble business man from Tomar, Aquiles da Mota Lima. His fascination with matchbox designs began in 1953. On his way, by ship, to be in London at the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II, he met an American woman who asked him to see if he could pick up a few matchboxes designed for and dedicated to the occasion and, during his travels, collect more matchboxes in other countries: “Please, will you send them to me?” He promised. Each time he found an interesting one, he kept a similar design for himself; at the time of his return to Portugal he had collected more than 100 quite unique matchboxes. This set him off to collecting matchboxes from ultimately 127 countries containing, “Oh, at least two, three million matchsticks,” says Ana Cristina Rosário, who is one of the ever so welcoming and helpful hosts at the museum. The collection’s oldest matchboxes date from the late 1800s. The design subjects move from social history to kitsch: pin-ups from all years between the 1890 to the mid-1980s; architecture, old and new; uniforms of many armies; vehicles from horse-drawn to Formula #1; movie stars; soccer players; animals, including racehorses and snakes; royalty portraits; erotica; windmills; classic ballet dancers; paintings by world-famous artists; all kinds of weaponry; national flags; war ships; and even just typography, either poetry or recipes.

Row after row

After Aquiles died, his daughter Maria Helena da Mota Lima supervised the collection. In 2017 she, very fragile, can still be found on the premises at least once a week. She is very attached to the collection and the museum, where the matchbox with the young crowned Elisabeth II is proudly on prominent display. The matchboxes on show are arranged by country of origin and sometimes by subject. One visit is not enough; repeated visits each time open up new discoveries. There is so much … matchboxes from the early communist days in the USSR; of Olympic Games; of book covers and film posters; of great authors;  of sport stars long gone from anyone’s memory; of despotic rulers and democratically chosen politicians; of war lords and peaceniks. Row after row in seven large rooms the displays overwhelm the visitor – who immediately understands he or she has to return to discover more and more. Some designs are rather primitive, others are very well done with regard for typography or color control. Some are rough copies of larger images, others are precisely drawn originals. And some are historically important while others are just “for fun” or aimed to be an end product for little children. Even the quality of print differs from one brand to the other, or from one country or period to the other. The combustible qualities of the matchsticks itself remain in the dark: all boxes are neatly lined up in large, locked display cases.


A visit to Tomar’s Museu dos Fósforos may get you as fascinated if not as addicted as Aquiles was after his trips to London and beyond, or as his daughter still is: she keeps adding to the collection. You may hit the button and Google for more and more matchbox design information to satisfy your curiosity. What you will find is just as amazing as the collection in Tomar. Quite a few matchbox museums, but most of them are dedicated not so much to matchbox designs as to vehicles from the Matchbox miniature car collection, in New Jersey and Connecticut (USA), in Chester (UK). But in Shanghai, just around the corner of the Jackie Chan Museum, the Matchbox and Brand Museum celebrates Shanghai’s business and advertising legacy with displays of classic ads, old packaging and, in particular, vintage matchboxes, from the Qing dynasty to modern day. Along the way there are tributes to Shanghainese businessmen such as Yang Jichuan (the “King of the electric fans”) and Zhu Baosan (the “King of cooking oil”). The museum’s building itself is worthy of note, too. One wall is decorated to look like a giant matchbox, while the entranceway is propped up by two enormous matchstick pillars.


Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía found itself at the center of a controversy regarding free speech and religious persecution when it unveiled its exhibition ‘Really Useful Knowledge’ a few years ago because one of the featured works, ‘Cajita de fósforos’ (Little box of matches), depicted two full, white matchboxes emblazoned on one side with an image of a burning church and on the other, the words “La única iglesia que ilumina es la que arde. ¡Contribuya!” (The only church that illuminates is the one that burns. Contribute!). This is a quote attributed to the Russian philosopher Piotr Kropotkin and became a famous motto of 20th-century Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti. The piece was created by Mujeres Públicas (Public Women), an Argentine feminist art collective. In Los Angeles, California, USA there appears to be a Matchbox Museum of Fine Art. It is not a museum you can visit, but a special “living” collection, an initiative of graphic designer Hillary Kaye, who creates matchbox covers based on book dust jackets; the Diamond matchboxes she uses as “background” have the “perfect aesthetic proportions of 1.333” x 2” of the classical golden rectangle,” Kaye says. “It is a joining of art and fire, very appropriate, as they both light our way.” Each cover is executed as a small edition and can be found in 23 USA bookstores only.

Important heritage

In the Museum of Fine Art’s collection in Boston, USA one can discover a 119-page scrapbook filled with 917 matchbook labels. This extraordinary beautiful collection was bought in Tokyo, Japan in a flea market in 2012. And then there is a Cajas de Fósforos in the Museo de la Ciudad in Mexico City – but its collection is not as impressive by far as the one in Tomar. In Jönköping, Sweden (south-west of Stockholm) the leading matchmaking brothers Lundstrom also founded a Museum of Matches, but here it is not just the box designs that are focused on but the whole matchstick production process. For other large matchbox design collections one has to visit private collectors like Tomar’s Aquiles da Mota Lima used to be. There are quite a few such “determined obsessive collectors” to find all over the world, with 300 or 3,000 or 10,000 covers in their religiously cherished collection. Their heritage, like da Mota Lima’s, is a wonderful one, no doubt also full of beauty and surprises. But do come and check out the largest and unique collection in Tomar first.

Ton Haak,
Tomar, September 2017