Uncommonwealth: Matchcover collectors share the love of their hobby at annual convention

ctruman@herald-leader.comAugust 25, 2013 

— During World War II, a matchbook was produced that featured a likeness of German dictator Adolf Hitler, and match-users were urged to strike the seat of the world's distress, which happened to align with the Fuhrer's posterior on the match's strike strip.

This matchbook was one of the thousands on display at the 73rd Annual Rathkamp Matchcover Society Convention in Northern Kentucky last week.

Matchcovers are an endangered species today, what with smoking being passé and lighters being inexpensive and readily available.

But in their day — when everyone used matches, either for lighting the stove or smoking or simply as a cheap souvenir — matchcover art was its own peculiarly inspired genre.

Those who collect the covers are called "phillumenists" and they specialize in particular areas from the naughty and sometimes nude "girly" covers to Christmas to mermaids.

Matchbook collecting has even spawned romance: Longtime partners Ellen Butting and Dick Hagerman of Nevada, who drove in for this week's convention, bonded over their matchbook collections.

Indeed, it's hard to find a subject that was not once the subject of matchbook art: history, ships (each military ship once had its own matchbook design), railroads, pilot Charles Lindbergh, racetracks, moonshine stills, Godzilla, stars of 1938 professional football, and hotels including the old Henry Clay Hotel in Louisville and the Hotel General Custer in Billings, Mont.

Some phillumenists collect oddly shaped matchbooks, such as the aqua blue Taxis Bleus from France — matchbooks that came in the shape of a car.

Even United States presidents had matchbooks with their names, until the first George Bush, a non-smoker, replaced them with more simple, but apparently less coveted, image of the White House on the cover.

A Stetson hat matchbook campaign from World War II spun off from the "loose lips sink ships" propaganda of that era: The matchbook covers urged users to "Keep It Under Your Stetson."

Rathkamp president Wally Mains and his wife, Pat, both University of Kentucky alumni, presided over the proceedings. Wally Mains has a collection of Big Boy restaurant matchbooks from varying eras and areas of the country.

Joe DeGennaro of New York City said he owns a couple hundred thousand matchbook covers. He specializes in subjects including World's Fairs and tobacco ("tobacco is tough because everybody is going non-smoking").

"It's not only the covers," DeGennaro said of his matchbook collecting hobby. "It's the social aspect as well."

Betsy Spoff of Columbus, Ohio, collects Worlds Fair matchbooks, and Christmas and Hallmark (yes, the greeting card company had some rockin' big matchbooks in its time). Spoff's husband collects hot-air balloon matchbooks.

Spoff confides that she also has "two rather unusual collections no else has" — sheep/lambs and fans (the kind that cool, not the kind that cheer).

Loren Ross, 86, has attended the Rathkamp conventions since 1958.

"When I first got started collecting, I would pick them up on the street," he said.

He estimates that now he has "a million-plus" covers, even though he lost one collection while a member of the Merchant Marine.

Many collectors will rip out the matches to better display the cover art and to alleviate the risk of fire. But some matches themselves are unusually innovative artwork: A Longchamps restaurant produced a matchbook in which every match is drawn as a bottle of champagne. Other matches on display are shaped like women's bodies or bowling pins. (Some of the girly match covers even feature raised bumps where the bustline is located.)

Said DeGennaro: "You never know what you're going to find on a match."

The convention at Erlanger's Holiday Inn airport drew about 150 participants. Among them were Marc Edelman of Philadelphia. Edelman, 56, one of the younger matchbook enthusiasts, became interested in matchbooks because he saw them collected in his aunt and uncle's house. He attended the convention with his hobby friend Michael Midda of London, England, where the matchbook society goes by a slightly clunky moniker: The British Matchbox Label and Book Match Society.

Edelman collects matchbooks, he said, because "you'll see things you never knew existed. It's the history of our country. Virtually everybody had matches to advertise at one time. It's a lost hobby; it's a lost art."

Photo gallery: More images online.

Link: Rathkamp Matchcover Society on the Web at Matchcover.org

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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