Vesta Cases
Posted: 15 June 2007 07:24 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I have a modest collection of silver vesta cases (aka matchsafes) and the common wisdom among collectors is that the name “vesta case” comes from the “fact” that “Swan Vestas” were the most popular brand of matches in Victorian England; so much so that vesta became synonymous with match and hence the name vesta case for the device which carried them. That Swan Vestas were popular is not really in question (they made the Bryant & May Co. rich) but all I can find is that the word match was used alongside “Lucifers” which was the name Samuel Jones gave to his matches. Lucifers date from around 1830 but Swan Vestas weren’t produced until 1861. The history of matches is interesting in its own right, but I’m more concerned with the name collectors use for the cases they were carried in by Victorian gentlemen. (Actually many say that true gentlemen took snuff and that smoking and matches were for the ordinary folk, but the large number of finely made vesta cases in precious metals and having loops for attachment to watch chains would seem to belie this idea.)

I’m wondering if the OED has an entry for “vesta case” or if anyone knows of Victorian source material which could support or disprove this common wisdom about the source of the name.

PS. We all know that Vesta was the Roman Goddess of hearth and home and that Bryant & May took the name for their product from her.

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Posted: 15 June 2007 08:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Here’s the entry in OED, with the first cite for Vesta case in there too.

Vesta

4. A kind of wax match. Orig. attrib.
1839 C. SINCLAIR Holiday House ii. 25 Laura afterwards singed a hole in her muslin frock, while lighting one of the Vesta matches to seal these numerous notes. 1857 Act 20 & 21 Vict. c. 62 §2 The following Duties of Customs shall be charged:..Lucifers, Vesta, of Wax, the 1,000 Matches, 0. 0. 0. 1859 CORNWALLIS Panorama New World I. 326 Wax vestas, pipes, maccaroni, and candles. 1863 ABEL in Lond. (etc.) Phil. Mag. Nov. 356 Varieties of wax or Vesta matches. 1864 STRAUSS, etc. Eng. Workshops 233 The vesta boxes are put in parcels of half-a-dozen and one dozen. 1886 D. C. MURRAY First Person Singular xix, Frost’s trembling fingers had to strike one or two vestas. 1899 T. M. ELLIS Three Cat’s-eye Rings 68 The major pulled a vesta-case from his pocket.

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Posted: 16 June 2007 12:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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“Swan Vestas” were the most popular brand of matches in Victorian England

What d’you mean, Victorian England? I may be ancient, but I’m not that ancient. When I lived in England a few years after WW2, my Auntie Ethel always had a box of Swan Vestas in the kitchen, and so did very many other householders. It was a big box, two or three times the size of an ordinary box of safety matches. “Strike-everywhere” matches like Swan Vestas were more common (at least on Merseyside, in the North of England, where I lived) than safety matches. “Pilot” is another brand I remember (that box featured a bearded nautical gentleman in a sou’-wester). These matches were much favoured by smokers --- they were less vulnerable to wind and rain than ordinary safety matches or cigarette-lighters (they needed to be, on Merseyside). They came in cardboard boxes, whereas safety matches (certainly the Swedish ones) were often in boxes of very thin wood.

Happydog, your posting sent me on a rampage of historical and etymological searching which proved quite fascinating. Thanks for that (did you know that your hobby makes you a phillumenist?). Aldi’s OED cite suggests that “Vesta” (despite being spelt in several early cites with a capital V) was a generic term, or if originally proprietary, soon became generic. “Match” itself turns out to be interesting, with a (for me) unexpected nasal association --- a very old English word, with older meanings “wick” or “fuse” (as in “slow-match”, “matchlock"), deriving ultimately (through Vulgar Latin micca) from Greek muxa, lamp wick/mucus (an association arising, presumably, from the resemblance of an oil lamp’s nozzle to a human nostril). The Spanish word for “wick” (also for a bomb-fuse) is mecha (Fr. mèche, It. miccia). The Spanish for “match”, on the other hand, is fósforo (Fr. allumette, It. fiammifero). Moco means “mucus” in Spanish --- mocoso is a slighting term, the Spanish equivalent of “snotty-nosed kid”.

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Posted: 16 June 2007 05:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Thanks aldi, I didn’t know that vesta was used for match before Swans came along.

Lionello, yes, we phillumenists love the word! As you have discovered, the world of matches is very interesting and the history of matches reads like a dime novel with intrigue, deception, death and the creation of fabulous fortunes. There was a type of early match (said to be favored by Charles Darwin) that was ignited by dipping it in a small vial of sulphuric acid! Can you imagine?

Collecting matchbooks and match boxes is a very large hobby and I’ve spoken with a few match geeks who make their own white-phosphorus matches. They ignite like small bombs, sending sparks everywhere and emitting toxic fumes - great stuff! They even have the added bonus of being poisonous!

I specialize in silver vesta cases and currently have twenty three of them. My favorite is one made by the Gorham Company and is deeply embossed in an art nouveau style. It is similar to the one pictured here.

I wish I could find Victorian (and earlier) and Edwardian source material online. That entry from the OED adds new information that I haven’t previously been able to find. I’d love to write an article on the history of vesta cases, but I’m feeling like online sources are leaving me woefully uninformed. Vesta Cases are usually identified as Victorianna but many wonderful pieces are both earlier and later.

edit: clarification.

[ Edited: 16 June 2007 05:44 AM by happydog ]
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Posted: 16 June 2007 10:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Passenger on train (to passenger sitting opposite, who is weeping quietly): “Excuse me sir, but something seems to be terribly wrong --- is there anything I can do to help?”

Second passenger (wiping eyes): “No, I’m afraid there isn’t. Nobody can help me. You see, I’ve just found out that I’m illegitimate, and it’s upset me terribly”.

First passenger: “Is that all? But really, that’s not something to get upset about! Lots of great people have been illegitimate --- William the Conqueror, Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander Hamilton, Don John of Austria...... as a matter of fact, I’m illegitimate myself, and it doesn’t bother me a bit!”

Woman sitting across the aisle. leaning over: “Would either of you two bastards happen to have a match?”

(Obviously a very dated story, both with respect to social attitudes toward so-called “illegitimacy”, and with respect to smoking on trains. But the word-play’s still there. So’s the word, sad to say)

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Posted: 17 June 2007 03:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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lionello - 16 June 2007 12:36 AM

“Swan Vestas” were the most popular brand of matches in Victorian England

What d’you mean, Victorian England? I may be ancient, but I’m not that ancient.

The fact that they were around as recently as the 1960s (in my memory) does not have any bearing on their popularity in the late 19th century.

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Posted: 17 June 2007 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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My point was that Swan Vestas were still the most popular (or among the most popular) matches in Britain, even after WW2 --- something I thought Happydog wasn’t aware of, just as he wasn’t aware that the term Vestas was in use well before Bryant and May --- from the beginning of the Victorian era, and possibly even earlier. But I confess, Faldage, that your statement is irrefutable.

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Posted: 17 June 2007 12:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Right you are Linonello. It seems my knowledge of the history of matches is exceeded only by my ignorance of the history of matches. The fact that the first recorded instance of “vesta case” is 30 years after the beginning of Swan Vestas really neither confirms nor denies the conventional wisdom among American collectors that the name for the case is tied to a specific product. However, I feel that since the term vestas as a name for matches in general precedes Swan Vestas by 30 years definitely weakens the argument. Not that any of this matters to any but a very few members of an obscure subculture.

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Posted: 20 June 2007 02:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Posted: 16 June 2007 10:05 PM [ Report ] [ Ignore ] [ # 4 ]

Passenger on train (to passenger sitting opposite, who is weeping quietly): “Excuse me sir, but something seems to be terribly wrong --- is there anything I can do to help?”

My birthday’s June 16th…

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