Matchbook Collection Finds a Home
at the Smithsonian

L ast year's Hurricane Fran affected Triangle residents in many different ways. For Jenni Elion, an engineer in CEET's Surface Cleaning Program, it was a time to sympathize with those who lost family treasures and to think about what she wanted do with a treasure of her own -- a matchbook collection spanning 50 years. Today that collection is in the Smithsonian Institution.

"People lost irreplaceable things in Hurricane Fran," Ms. Elion said. "I had collected matchbooks for a long time, and I wanted to do something to preserve them."

She began her collection in 1974 to earn a Junior Girl Scout collector's badge. Everyone in her family smoked, she said, and matchbooks were an obvious choice. Then her grandfather, who had collected for many years, gave her his collection, which included matchbooks from the 1939 World's Fair in New York and a series designed by Walt Disney for Pepsi during WWII.

"Back then, everyone advertised on matchbooks -- drug stores, banks, grocery stores, restaurants, even political candidates," Ms. Elion said. "The Smithsonian historian who looked at the collection was really interested in the older pieces."

Matchbooks came into use in the early part of this century, when cigarette smoking became more popular with women, and declined in the 1980s with the rise in the use of disposable lighters. Ms. Elion's collection has about 2,000 pieces in such categories as restaurants, hotels, war, and politics.

There are novelty matchbooks advertising restaurants, with matches designed to resemble chefs, lobsters, or wine bottles. One matchbook advertised a New York synagogue around 1950, others were printed with trivia questions and answers, and a set of bicentennial matchbooks had pictures of every president from Washington to Ford.

"My family collected them for me in Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, Chicago -- wherever they lived," Ms. Elion said. "That's how I got the whole set."

Once she'd decided to donate the collection to the Smithsonian, there was the problem of how to transport it. It couldn't be shipped because it was flammable, so on Good Friday, she put the collection in her car and drove it to Washington, DC.

"People ask me why I didn't sell it, but I feel good knowing it's where anyone can see it," she said. "And it feels neat to know I have something in the nation's attic."

The Elion/Weingarten collection honors Ms. Elion's grandfather, Samuel Weingarten. It's housed in the Archives Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The collection is accessible to the public; visitors should ask to see the Elion/Weingarten Matchbook Collection or Collection #578.

June 2, 1997 by Beth Tressler, PDS


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