B M Durtnall is a historian and writer with an MA in history. Her focus on labour history resulted in her website "Labouringallourlives.ca"
Matches are innocuous objects. They are simple things comprised of a match head and a stick. You flick it against the box or another hard substance and it gives you light. Yet matches are an example of Victoria’s Dirty Little Secret. During the early 1800s, they might have been beneficial for those who used them, but they were killers for those who produced them.
John Walker (1781-1859) created the first friction match in 1826. He was an English chemist and was re-examining the work done previously by Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in the late 17th century when he made his breakthrough. Three years later, Sir Isaac Holden (1807-1897) had taken the concept, improved it, and even demonstrated it to his class at the Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire. A pupil, quick to see money in a new idea, wrote his father, Samuel Jones, a London chemist. It was Jones who patented the idea and began to sell the new product under the name “Lucifer’s Matches.”
Yet this creation was not perfect. To put it bluntly, these matches were duds. They burnt waveringly and could ignite with an explosive flame or send off sparks in several directions. A solution was developed by Charles Sauria (1812-1895), a Parisian chemist. He added white phosphorus into the mixture to remove the stench. Now the matches burnt relatively odourless, although they needed to be kept in an airtight box. The overall result was a positive reception by the public. The negative result was “phossy jaw.”
White phosphorus is highly toxic. It causes necrosis if ingested or comes into close contact with the skin. "Matchgirls" – and women – working in factories around the world producing these new “Lucifers” were directly exposed to the disease. Not only did they handle the matches daily and for extended hours, it became part of their diet whenever they ate. At this time, a factory rarely had a separate room in which employees could sit and eat. Matchgirls and children often ate at their work station. The phosphorus settled on their food and they ate it.
The disease was popularly known as phossy jaw. It exhibited itself first in aching teeth and jaws as the disease worked its way into the bones. Jaws became deformed and, at the first sign of this problem, the girl was then dismissed. With no medical coverage, they would suffer a slow, painful death. Some even committed suicide rather than continue being in pain and a burden on families already having a tough time.
Phosphorus was so toxic, children given matchsticks developed severe bone problems. In fact, research discovered that a single package contained enough poisons to kill a single person.
The following is a description of phossy jaw:
“The patient was a 35-year-old matchmaker who presented with great external swelling and in a debilitated state from inability to take solid food. Extending from ear to ear along the line of the jaw was a chain of ulcerated openings, from which there was profuse discharge and through any of which a probe could reach dead bone. Inside the mouth, the toothless alveolar process was seen bared of soft parts in its whole extent, the bone being rough and brownish-black. The gum gaped widely away from the dead jaw and had receded so as to leave it above the natural level of that bone, a probe could be passed easily either in front or behind the bone toward the sinuses of the neck. Under chloroform, the jaw was removed by dividing it at the symphysis and dragging the two halves out separately.”
Seeking a Solution
Eventually, demands were made to replace the white phosphorus with another substance. A crucial factor in revealing the working conditions of matchgirls was the strike at Bryant & May in London England in 1888. Science once again led the way. Henri Savene and Emile David Cahen, French chemists, came up with a safe match, replacing white phosphorus with phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate. Patenting it in 1898, it took another year for it to appear on the market. The firm of Albright & Wilson began to manufacture it the following year.
This was not the end of “Lucifers.” While countries such as Finland and Denmark had been quick to act, banning the matches in 1872 and 1874 respectively, others were much slower to move in this direction. France and Switzerland banned them in 1897 and 1898. The Netherlands came on board in 1901. However, many countries did not embrace a ban of white phosphorus matches until after an agreement was forged at the Berne Convention in September 1906.
Berne Convention: The Aftermath
After the passage of the agreement in 1906, countries had to pass their own laws to prohibit use, sale and importation of phosphorus matches. Great Britain did so in 1908. The United States replaced the ban with an excessively high manufacturing “punitive tax” that successfully ceased all production by 1913. The Diamond Match Company, although not known for having their employees’ interests at heart, came up with a non-toxic match in 1910 and patented it, also making it available to other match companies. India and Japan banned the manufacturing process in 1919, but China delayed their ban until 1925.
Today, phossy jaw is a nightmare of the past. Its name lives on in a group of the same name, but, essentially, it, like so many other remnants of the Industrial Revolution, is part of working-class history. This is where it should remain – never forgotten, but kept out of the workplace.
Marx R.E. (20008) Uncovering the cause of “Phossy Jaw” circa 1858 to 1906: oral and maxillofacial surgery closed case files — case closed. J Oral Maxillofac Surg : 2356-2361.
- BBC - Legacies - Work - England - London - Setting the workers alight: the East End Match Girls' Str
Article about the Match Girls' strike of 1888 from the Bryand & May factory in the East End of London
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Diane Ward on March 17, 2014:
Very interesting. sad to think of the pain these poor people went through