Match Point

Not even legalized pot can save the restaurant matchbook.

Marijuana legalization may foster more tolerant attitudes toward smoking, an activity which over the past decade or so has acquired significant social stigma. But the head of the American Matchcover Club isn't holding out any hope that bars and restaurants will again start issuing commemorative matchbooks.

At the height of the matchbook era, roughly from the Korean War to the late 1960s, "everything in America had a matchbook attached to it," Bill Retskin says. For collecting purposes, matchbooks are segmented into 600 different categories, from airplanes to zoos. But the field was always dominated by the food-and-beverage industry: According to Retskin, matchbooks associated with restaurants, hotels, motels, banks, and supermarkets accounted for 95 percent of the matchbooks issued in the U.S.

Supermarket matchbooks are typically the least attractive of the bunch, featuring "Draw this picture" come-ons for studying art through the mail and ads for shoe-salesman training. Restaurant and bar matchbooks, by contrast, were often beautifully designed, with images printed on the matches and covers executed in four-color printing. Yet Retskin says very few collectors focus on matchbooks from restaurants and bars. "They want trucks, they want girls, they want politics," he says.

When matchbooks were profitable, there were 15 matchbook manufacturers nationwide. Now there's one, desperately attempting to stay relevant with gimmicks such as pillowed matchboxes with curved edges which fit discreetly into pockets. "They're making them sexier for the modern woman and modern man," Retskin says. "They're trying everything, but eventually it will be a thing of the past."

What killed the restaurant-matchbook tradition wasn't antismoking laws or the Surgeon General's warning on tobacco. Rather, matches couldn't compete with the plastic BiC lighter, launched in 1973. Retskin suspects that's what most smokers who take advantage of I-502's provisions will use.

"I would hope [matchbooks] have a minor resurgence, but you can light anything with a BiC or a Zippo," he laments.

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