Match companies touted “the smashing advertising power of book matches!” as the best way to light a fire under voters in the 1940s. Budget-conscious candidates agreed. In an era when Americans smoked nearly everywhere, politicians handed out campaign matchbooks by the truckload. Low cost and wide use turned a set of strikes into “20 little salesmen” for congressional candidates.
Congressional contenders’ giveaways combined the visual punch of candidate photographs with surprisingly detailed policy statements. To begin with, candidates wanted to make sure constituents knew their names and faces. Designs usually started with a photograph on one side of the cardboard cover. Mustachioed and Brylcreemed, Byron Scott used a photo that intimated a movie-star stylishness appropriate to booming southern California. Forest Harness’ version framed the Representative’s relatively unexciting image with zippy design and a lighthearted slogan, “Hitch up with Harness again in 1942.”
Matchbooks like Harness’ were often crammed with text, inside and out. The tiny giveaway told the reader everything from the election date to the candidate’s platform. Cleveland Bailey needed an extra-wide version and five different typefaces to hold his must-read information, including the names of his fellow candidates. Donald Bruce added his home phone number, in case his vow to “meet the ‘challenge of the sixties’ with courage – truth – intelligence” and “a sound dollar, a strong foreign policy, integrity above all” left an undecided voter in doubt. And no wonder Bruce crammed so much onto his cover. Sales brochures noted (and judging from the popularity, candidates agreed) that information was “insistently but inoffensively repeated twenty times, once for every match in the book.”
The heyday of campaign matchbooks lasted more than four decades. Such longevity was no surprise. The relatively high cost of other gimmicks (including thimbles, fans, and emery boards) and near-universal smoking made matchbooks a must-have during the election season. Shrewd salesmen in the 1930s created templates for candidates to use. Just drop in the information, and “distribute almost three of them… at the price of a penny postcard.” The first templates were spot-on, and similar elements showed up through the 1960s.
Most Members of Congress never imagined their tiny billboards would endure past election day. Nonetheless, some matchbooks, salvaged from the back of kitchen junk drawers and hobbyists’ collections, found their way to the House’s trove of artifacts. These battered survivors show Representatives illuminating their candidacies whenever a supporter struck a light.
Sources: H. Thomas Steele, Close Cover Before Striking (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987); Sales brochures, Gem Match Company (1944) and Diamond Match Company (n.d.); Marisa Wilairat, “Diamond Matchbooks: Development of Advertising and the Corporate Image in Early 20th Century America,” The Haverford Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1 (February 2006)Follow @USHouseHistory