by Tena Starr
copyright June 1, 2011
GLOVER — There’s a theory, at least, that the first matches were invented by women in China while their city was under siege. Since they couldn’t gather tinder and start fires in the usual way, they used what was at hand, which happened to be white phosphorous.
Thus, the match, which they called a “light-bearing slave.”
There were problems, however, with white phosphorous matches. For instance, the people who made them were prone to coming down with “phossy jaw,” an infection of the jaw caused by exposure to phosphorous. The disease started with toothaches and swollen gums and progressed to abcessed jawbones that had to be removed. The affected bones would glow greenish-white in the dark. Brain damage was also a symptom. Victims were either grossly disfigured, or died.
Eventually, matchmakers (the literal type) moved to using red phosphorous, which doesn’t cause the disease.
Matches are one of those everyday items that most of us don’t give much thought to.
Clare Dolan, however, has thought about matches quite a lot. She also thinks about safety pins, zippers, paper clips, and all kinds of other objects that
most of us consider so innocuous that their existence, much less their history, barely enters our minds.
This coming weekend Ms. Dolan’s Museum of Everyday Life, will open. Don’t expect spectacle, but do expect to learn something, and to be entertained.
The initial exhibit will be called Fire! and will include at least some of the following: The history of the match, sulfer and its properties, the international collection of things made from matchsticks, an X-rated collection of pornographic matchboxes (well, not exactly pornographic), portraits of the Glover Volunteer Fire Department, and the arson evidence collection.
Ms. Dolan is a nurse by profession. She also works with the Bread and Puppet Theater, and involves herself in other ways in the arts. About seven years ago, she bought a big old house on Route 16 in Glover. It includes a barn, and that space opened up new artistic possibilities.
“I’m not really a farmer lady,” she said. “I didn’t think about getting a lot of cows. I just maybe thought about getting a donkey.
In fact, she does have a donkey. His job is to mow the lawn, and he appears to be reasonably efficient at it. Nancy the goat also lives there, but her function in life is more social — she’s the greeter.
Ms. Dolan said in an interview Sunday that she’s always been interested in collections and displaying objects.
“This just springs out of that interest,” she said. “I take a lot of pleasure in everyday life objects. Like, how did they invent the paperclip? And batteries and matches and thimbles and zippers?”
Everything in Ms. Dolan’s museum is an object with a cost of $5 or less. Not that she’s selling her displays; it’s just that she wants to stick to a celebration of the small, unglamorous and everyday.
The subject of her initial exhibition was a choice between safety pins and matches, she said, but she had more material on matches. “Matches, like most everyday objects, have a lot of interesting history.”
There was, for instance, the evolution of the matchbook from the match box. The matches in a box contained enough white phosphorous to kill someone.
“By scraping off the matches, people could kill themselves, and they did,” Ms. Dolan said.
Matchboxes and books were used for all sorts of endeavors. For instance, Ms. Dolan acquired a bizarre collection of small matchboxes that show on their covers photographs of the Soviet dogs that went into space.
Beer companies used matchboxes in their advertising campaigns.
Matches were called lucifers and still are in some places.
And then there’s phillumeny — the hobby of collecting match-related ephemera, of which Ms. Dolan herself might be considered guilty, though she
might prefer pointing to some unknown fellow who was in the military and collected matchbooks from all over the West Coast, including Alaska.
“This guy spent a lot of time in nightclubs and dance halls,” she said, pointing to the collection of rather artistic matchbooks. She noted that it’s possible to tell a lot about a person by what they choose to collect.
But the crown jewel of her match collection is likely an assortment of instruments — violins, a banjo, and a mandolin — built entirely of match sticks. They were made by a man named Dale Brown who was in prison at the start of his unlikely and time-consuming project.
“He only had access to matches and white glue,” Ms. Dolan said. “He stained them with coffee.”
The museum also includes the “Beastiary,” a whimsical zoo of creatures whose appearance is enhanced by the addition of matchsticks.
The museum will be open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. throughout the summer. It’s self-service, meaning show up, turn the lights on, and turn them off when you leave. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
The museum’s official opening will be on Saturday, June 4. It’s located on Route 16 south of Glover Village in the barn adjacent to a big yellow house.
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]