Friction Match
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Basic Information

The friction match is a fire lighting device, consisting of a small piece of wood or cardboard tipped with a quantity of material which will ignite in response to sufficient friction. The match is used by drawing the head across a rough surface (typically a piece of sandpaper attached to the container in which the matches were supplied), this causes chemicals on the tip to combust and the resulting flame can then be used to light something else (such as tinder or a portfire).

A typical modern match is of the kind known as a "safety match", tipped with more stable and less toxic compounds based on red phosphorous. These became widespread from about the 1860s - previous types included matches based around the entirely less safe white phosphorous and matches which were ignited by dipping in a vial of acid. The ancestral match was little more than a piece of tinder, comprising a stick impregnated with sulphur and/or potassium nitrate (saltpetre). The other notable form of modern match is the waterproof match (also known as a storm or lifeboat match) - these are mainly distinguished by a higher wax content and thus being more or less immune to being ruined by water immersion and being strikable (with difficulty) when wet … both of which are very much not the case for a standard match.

Some of the early types of match were relatively expensive and gimmicky, but once industrial production got underway they became so cheap as to be almost ubiquitous. In the eras when tobacco smoking was still widely permitted, it was common for all sorts of places to give away promotional matchbooks to their customers - these were small folds of cardboard, containing a strip of up to a dozen matches and a piece of striking paper and branded on the outside with the givers contact details. Another common match based accessory was the match case - a small, waterproof container for a number of matches and a striker, especially popular with soldiers and other outdoor types.

See Also

  • Locofocos — A political faction who were named after a brand of friction match


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Until you've tried lighting a fire "the old fashioned way" it's not easy to understand how much of an improvement these things really are. The benefit of safety matches is emphasised from the user's point of view by imagining a phosphorous fire in your trouser pocket.
    • Pre-1860s users will be obliged to do battle with more exciting types of match.
  • In the early C20 (when smoking was normal and lighters were less common) it would be reasonable for a PC to claim they were carrying matches by default, without it being on their inventory - and, when the police are searching for someone to fit up for arson, for the GM to decide that they find some matches by default if it would help the plot.
  • The question then being: has the PC kept their matches dry?
  • When trying to strike a match in the dark, any PC with a known tidiness habit may find themselves hampered by having put used matches back in the box.
  • Matches are also a common constituent of military ration packs.
  • Tracing someone's movements from promotional matchbooks is an old staple of detective fiction, especially in the pulp era.
    • They were also, traditionally, handy places to write telephone numbers and other cryptic messages, being freely available but limited in space.
    • A bar fly might have matchbooks from several establishments, all of them partially used. Someone with a lot of unused ones might be a professional visitor, picking them up like calling cards.
  • A match case is also a good store for small, water sensitive items.
  • Chewing match-sticks was a relatively common annoying habit back in the day.
    • Especially for a smoker trying to quit.
  • The friction match can also be used as an improvised igniter for a booby trap fuse (pulling on a trip wire draws the match through a friction plate and strikes it, lighting the fuse) or a book of matches can be combined with a smouldering cigarette or slow match to create a burst of flame after a time delay as a sort of detonator (the slow burning object burns down at a known rate until it contacts the match heads and lights them all more or less at once).
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