Friction Matches Were a Boon to Those Lighting Fires–Not So Much to Matchmakers

Those who worked in match factories were exposed to white phosphorus, which caused a debilitating and potentially deadly condition

Female match workers in the 1870s. Wikimedia Commons

Friction matches gave people the unprecedented ability to light fires quickly and efficiently, changing domestic arrangements and reducing the hours spent trying to light fires using more primitive means. But they also created unprecedented suffering for match-makers: One of the substances used in some of the first friction matches was white phosphorus. Prolonged exposure to it gave many workers the dread “phossy jaw.”

A British pharmacist named John Walker invented the match by accident on this day in 1826, according to Today in Science History. He was working on an experimental paste that might be used in guns. He had a breakthrough when he scraped the wooden instrument he was using to mix the substances in his paste, and it caught fire.

With a little work, writes Andrew Haynes for The Pharmaceutical Journal, Walker produced “a flammable paste made with antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate and gum arabic, into which he dipped cardboard strips coated with sulfur.” He started selling his “friction lights” to locals in April 1827 and they quickly took off.

Walker never patented his invention, writes Haynes, in part because “the burning sulfur coating would sometimes drop from the stick, with a risk of damage to flooring or the user’s clothing.” Despite the dangers, he was advised to patent the matches, according to the BBC, so it’s a bit unclear why he didn’t. His invention was quickly copied by Samuel Jones of London, who started selling “Lucifers” in 1829.

Experimentation with these new devices produced the first matches that included white phosphorus, an innovation that was quickly copied. Advances in matches continued over the 1830s and into the 1840s, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Match-making became a common trade across England. There were “hundreds of factories spread across the country,” writes Kristina Killgrove for Mental Floss. “For 12 to 16 hours a day, workers dipped treated wood into a phosphorus concoction, then dried and cut the sticks into matches.”

Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children, writes Killgrove. “Half the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.”

This gruesome and debilitating condition was caused by inhaling white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average,” Killgrove writes.

The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw. Although phossy jaw was far from the only side-effect of prolonged white phosphorus exposure, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants. By 1892, writes Lowell J. Satre for the journal Victorian Studies, newspapers were investigating the plight of match workers.

A London reporter from The Star visited a victim of phossy jaw who had worked at a Salvation Army match factory. The woman, named Mrs. Fleet, “revealed that she had gotten the disease after working five years at the company,” Satre writes. “After complaining of tooth and jaw ache, she had been sent home, had four teeth extracted, lost part of her jaw bone, and suffered the excruciating pain of the disease.” The smell of the dying bone, which eventually literally came out through her cheek, was so bad that her family couldn’t bear it.

After this, she was let go from the match company, which paid her for a few months. After that, she couldn’t get another job–no other match company would hire her, Satre writes, because it would make them look bad to be associated with phossy jaw. “Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma,” Killgrove writes.

Eventually match makers stopped using white phosphorus in matches, and it was outlawed in the United States in 1910.

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