Vintage Tea Room Matchbook Covers

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From the Land of Tea

In this installment of "From the Land of Tea," we take a look at a web page that was funded by my Patreon supporters, who had access to it one full year before the public.

  • Patreon Release Date: July 28th, 2021
  • Public Release Date: July 28th, 2022.

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Magical Matchbooks!

All of the material you have access to here -- the fabulous tea cups, the instructive booklets, the nostalgic postcards, the boldly graphic matchbook covers, and all of the historical information researched and shared from the mind of the woman who is making it all happen -- can easily fit into one 8 x 10 foot room in an old Victorian farmhouse, but you would never see it without the investment of the time it takes to produce such a site and the caloric input such a site requires in the form of food for the writer, graphic designer, and database manager, as well as the US currency needed to pay for the computers, software applications, scanners, electricity, and internet connectivity that bring it out of that little room and into the world. So, as you can see, this site is the darling of many, and it is growing at a rapid rate ... but although it is "free," there also is a cost. Your financial support underwrites this cost.

Each new web page or sample pdf is circulated to Patrons as an unpublished galley proof or advance copy. After one year access for Patrons, each web page will be released to the public, while book pages will be available to the public as printed books, and copies will be sent to Patrons who subscribe at the upper two tiers.

Patrons have access to a Private Patreon sub-forum within the Lucky Mojo Forum, and will be accorded special Red Star Avatar badges at the Forum.




Advertising Tea Rooms with Matchbook Art

Tea Rooms have utilized many forms of advertising, including postcards, sugar cubes, ashtrays, business cards, and matchbooks. The last-named of these, known as matchbooks or matchcovers, and, after they are empty, as matchbook covers, are small folded rectangles of grey or tan chipboard, printed on the outside in one to four colours, and bearing a dark-grey striking surface for the chipboard matches stapled inside. As a surface which to embellish with art and information, they date back to the era when smoking was permitted in restaurants. A bowl of matchbooks sat next to the cash register, and there was often a cigarette vending machine on the wall near the door. Since smoking has been outlawed in eating establishments, matchbooks have pretty much disappeared, and most smokers carry their own petroleum-fueled lighters.

Advertising matchbooks are often, but not always, comprised of four panels of art, sho-card lettering, and typesetting: These are the front, the back, the spine, and the fold-over with the striker. On older examples, the iconic warning, "Close Cover Before Striking" is located on the free end on the cover; on later examples, it is displaced to the striker panel.

Now, the thing about these panels of artful lettering is that they both are oriented to face upward, when the spine is at top and the striker at bottom. And while some collectors prefer to keep them as full and unused packets, it is far more common to pull out the metal staple that holds the matches in place, and flatten the cover for placement in a display album or storage a small file-box. For the past 50 years i have kept my matchbook covers filed alphabetically in wooden boxes decorated with pyrography. When i wish to view them, i take the whole pile out and carefully rummage through them.

A change came when i created the Mystic Tea Room site, back in 2013, i pulled all of my tea room matchbook covers out of the box and set them into a three-ring binder album so that i could sort through them with respect to the tea room postcards. The idea was to put the entire Mystic Tea Room collection in state order, from Alaska to Wyoming, and within the states, to place everything in alphabetical order by city-name. This would result in protector sheets for postcards, menus, business cards, and matchbook covers for each state and city.

Storing all of the artifacts from any given tea room in one lot is quite useful, and since i also collect restaurant ware, i can slip a photo of a place setting, if not an actual cup and saucer, into the album at the proper place.

However, when it comes to display, two problems arise from this storage method, and they have weighed heavily on my mind:

1) There will be blanks. Some states may turn up 16 postcards of tea rooms but only one matchbook cover. I am buying and storing a lot of empty plastic with this method.

2) Non-collectors will not get the full visual impact of the beauty of the collection because the mind's eye will have to continually switch from postcards to matchbook covers to newspaper articles. This requires a split-second of mental readjustment that is exacerbated by the "blanks" on some pages.

3) The tactile feel of the matchbook covers is lost. However, with this comes a bonus: postcards fare better when stored in mylar and show better in mylar than in greyish polyethylene sleeves, so they end up looking quite nice in binder-alums.

What is worse, from the standpoint of the matchbook cover collection, is the fact that once they are places in an album, they have a specified top-to-bottom orientation. To view both aspects of the matchcover, you need to rotate the entire album 180 degrees to enjoy each cars.

This problem is, however, entirely overcome by displaying the items on the web. It is a simple matter to make a second copy of the object and rotate it 180 degrees and place the two images side-by-side -- and that is what i have done here. Now you can see both panels, and the spine and striker, in an upright orientation. It is almost as if i owned two copies of each rare little art piece. Which i kinda wish i did, or course.

While enjoying this page, i hope you realize that i have many dozens more of these tea room matchbook covers in my physical collection. I am opening the topic with a few favourites, but by no means sll of them.

So let's talk about what we can see here in terms of the history of the tea room movement, the history of commercial art, and the history of the printing trades in America.

Our first row begins with a silver and red matchbook cover for ... The Mystic Tea Room of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the very place for whch this web site was named! The proprietor was Bernice Barton, and the tea room was famous for giving customers a free tea reading with every meal.








catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
The Mystic Tea Room

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