At the height of the matchbook era -- which ran 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. The 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 anti-smoking laws, or the Surgeon General's warning on tobacco. Matches couldn't compete with the plastic BIC lighter, launched in 1973. Restkin 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 says.