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Actor William Powell
Collecting Matchcovers in 1950… & Today
Today I was creating listings for several old back issues of The American Magazine for sale and had the pleasure of encountering one of those rare articles which distracts me from work for a reading break. It starts on page 42 inside of the August 1950 issue of The American and is titled "How Grownups Play With Matches."
Actually, as I copied the contents page of this issue the title did nothing for me, I mean, that could mean anything, but I try to page through all of the magazines that come through here looking for hidden treasures, and in this case it came in the form of a Sam Rosen from Brooklyn seated behind a desk stacked high with his collection while smiling with a cigar in his mouth. Across the top of the page were several examples of the matchcovers he collects.
Us collectors tend to have a soft spot for history. It comes with the territory to some degree and for me it expands beyond collecting to its own interest. In fact I'm not sure if the collector in me craves history or if my fondness for history has led me to collect. Either way, my point is, a subject which interests me is the actual history of collecting itself. So I thought Sam Rosen and company might give us all a chance to take a better look at matchcover collecting from a 1950 perspective.
I came to find that Rosen began his collection in 1942 largely out of boredom after moving to Cincinnati where he didn't know anyone. Rosen was the most recent winner of the Outstanding Collector of the Year Award (for 1949) given out by the Rathkamp Matchcover Society to the collector who has done the most "towards improving the ideals of match-book-cover collecting, and to promote public interest."
The Rathkamp Matchcover Society happens to not only still exist but came up quite high on the page when I started Googling terms like "matchcover collecting" tonight. In fact, it looks like the place to go if you're a matchcover collector today. Besides connecting collectors they have an excellent page with some standards for collecting for those just starting out. For example:
Back to 1950, and actually the very end of the American's article for the quickest explanation of what's available to be collected:
“You can specialize in radio stations and try for the Counter-Spy series, which is ultra; you can specialize in baseball covers, and try to piece together a set of Baseball Centennials; you can go in for odd sizes, called Giants, Midgets, Ten Strikes, and Royal Flashes; or you can concentrate on Fraternals, which carry the imprint of The Yale Club, The Elks, or The Rotary Club of Moosup, Conn.
Myrna Loy Matchcover
The article also mentions a couple of the prizes for matchcover collectors, and lo and behold, I was able to find some recent info on these items as well. They lead into these items by mentioning some of the top items from other collecting niches (a British Guinea one-cent stamp and an 1820 silver dollar for example) before stating:
"[…] It's the same-way with matchcover collectors. What they all wish they had is the Lindbergh cover."
Lindbergh Matchcover (simulation)
"Everybody who attended the testimonial luncheon for Lindbergh, June 15, 1927, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, got one of these matchcovers. They used them and threw them away, or left them behind to be swept up, and now only one man, Frank Cranston, of Rhode Island is known to have one. It is valued at $100.”
So I Googled this specific matchcover, not really expecting much luck, but I did find some semi-recent sales reports. A 1996 article found on Cigar Afficionado mentions that two had sold recently for $1,600 and $3,800 by the American Matchcover Collecting Club. A slightly earlier 1995 piece in The Seattle Times values the Lindbergh piece at $4,000 according to a collector they spoke with. Finally, and much more recently, the Spring 2008 edition of Carolina Home + Garden talks to collector Bill Retskin who says he's brokered a sale of one of the Lindbergh treasures for $2,700.
While I'm going to jump to the assumption that there is more than one of the Lindbergh covers floating around now, my guess is that it's still exceedingly rare. In fact the dealer in me thinks of the limited quantities of T206 Honus Wagner baseball cards and figures this matchbook likely exists in smaller quantities than that Holy Grail of collecting.
But for matchcover collectors there's one piece even rarer than the Lindbergh:
“[…] the one and only Mendelson cover, is something the collector talks of without covetousness and views with awe, knowing full well he will never see another. About 200 of them were made one night in 1892 by the cast of the Mendelson Opera Company to advertise its performances. The advertisement is handwritten and the match cover is decorated with photographs of the leads, which were cut out and pasted on. This rare piece of match bibliophilia is mounted in an airtight silver frame and kept in the museum of the Diamond Match Company. It is insured for $25,000.
That was 1950. And you know what, that's what it looks like it's still covered for today. The only new information I could find relating to the Mendelson Opera Company cover is that it is owned by The Franklin Mint. Otherwise it appears it's insured for the same amount and remains the only one of its kind.
However by dwelling on value I'm probably straying into the wrong area for those with an interest. It's a habit of mine caused by my old baseball card days when you never made a move to buy, trade or sell without scouring the price guides and looking to make the magic numbers work in your favor. The general perception I'm gathering, both from the perspective of 1950 and 2009 is that matchcover collecting is still somewhat pure in this regard, or at least collectors like to think so.
That so, I'll wrap up by quoting one of the stories about specific collectors from inside the August 1950 issue of the American:
“[…] Very little is really known about Doc (Wilson), largely because he would have nothing to do with other collectors: but legend has it that he worked for an adding machine company on the Pacific Coast until one night when, at a company banquet, Doc's wife made a scene. Doc walked out on the banquet, the wife, and the job. He turned up next in Baltimore, and stayed there, collecting match covers, until he died...
Doc is said to have had at one time "the greatest collection of match covers in the world." From time to time, he is known to have sold off parts of his collection for more than $18,000. But the part he worked most of 10 years to build up and would not sell while he lived was his "small town" collection.
Doc's ambition was to get one match cover from every town in the United States with a population of less than 1,000. It is said that he sat down at his typewriter every morning at 6 a.m. with a Postal Guide beside him and worked until midnight or later writing letters asking for match covers. If there was no business in town which used matchcover advertising, Doc would send the postmaster a blank match cover, with return postage, and ask him to cancel the blank with the town's stamp. When Doc died, 15,000 out of a possible 55,000 postmasters had come across”.
I don't know, that little story screams of exaggeration, and truth be told the writer of this article admitted they knew nothing of the hobby but unlike me they set to writing about it with a slight sense of mockery. As in, look at what these nuts are doing, rather than stepping back and admiring the passion of collecting.
What I like best about the Doc Wilson story is the creativity behind his collection. As an outsider myself, I note a lot of similarities to postcard collecting.
If you're interested in collecting matchcovers yourself I'd suggest digging deeper into the Rathkamp Matchcover Society website. As their site proclaims, they're "The Oldest Phillumenic Organization in the World! Celebrating our 67th Year!" Heck, they were talking about them in 1950!
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