words by fellow phillumenist and CR Fashion Book Digital Editor Vienna Vernose, May 2020

November 17, 2023

Before anti-smoking laws made matchbooks a rarity, the tiny artworks were offered up as complimentary favors in establishments around the world. From a 79-year old collectors society to a mother-daughter run matchbook Instagram account, meet the "phillumenists" across generation

I started collecting matches around two years ago after seeing them up for grabs at bars and restaurants around New York. Finding matchbooks around today is rare and frankly, a bit of an Easter egg hunt, but my friends and family now know to pick them up for me when they spot them.

Recently, my 98-year old grandmother gave me the matchbooks she gathered over her 30-year stretch as a cigarette smoker. In her day before the boom of the lighter in the ‘80s and prohibitive laws against smoking, matchbooks were offered up as a promotional branded item akin to a business card or a magnet. The now yellowed covers that sat in her home piled into an oversized brandy snifter had been plucked from assorted businesses: casinos, a Mexican restaurant, an auto body shop.

Most of these complimentary favors from around the world have been lit and discarded, but what fails to burn out is the passion of matchbook collectors — or phillumenists, as they call themselves — who amass rare collections and belong to collectors’ societies.

The Rathkamp Matchcover Society is celebrating its 79th year as the most prestigious phillumenic organization, boasting around 870 active members across the globe. Managing editor and OG phillumenist Mike Prero began collecting matches in 1983 after retiring his costly coin-collecting hobby. “I was a history and anthropology teacher and saw lots of history in matchcovers,” says Prero. He joined the society the subsequent year and became editor for RMS in 1994. Since his start as a phillumenist 37 years ago, Prero has seen a number of “in house changes” in the world of matchbook collectors. “The most devastating change was wrought by the anti-smoking campaigns and laws,” says Prero. These resulted in a 75% decrease in members as matches stopped being so readily available.

“The collectors that are left now are the hardcore veterans,” says Prero.For instance, take RMS member Ed Brassard of Del Mar, California, who is known to have the largest collection in the world (certified by the Guiness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe it or Not) of over 2 million matchbooks . However, with an average age above 60 at the RMS, the next generation of leading phillumenists has yet to emerge. “Unfortunately, there are no young collectors!” says Prero. “Collectors try to interest their kids and grandkids, but, if it takes at all, it proves to be just a passing fancy. This hobby takes time and patience...not notable in the younger generation.”

This generation has phased out the idea of membership societies, but matchbook collecting has taken a new form showcased on our Explore pages. “I started seeing tons of beauty influencers or beauty aficionados on Instagram who would post photos of their bedside tables with a Diptyque candle, flowers and a stack of matches,” says 26-year-old Alice Cavallo, a third-generation matchbook collector and co-founder of the phillumenic Instagram account OH, WHAT A MATCH! “Maybe it was just a confirmation bias, but then I realized there’s quite a lot of people collecting matches.”

The Swiss-Italian native started the account in 2017 alongside her mother and co-founder, Nadia Tisone Cavallo, while home from New York’s Sarah Lawrence College. “I came back with a bunch of matches that I had started collecting in the city and showed them to my mom. She was so surprised because she had done the same, collecting matches when she was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology.”

To Cavallo’s surprise, her mother had saved the matches from her days as a student and the two dusted off a bin in their basement uncovering old matchbooks from the heydays of ‘80s New York. “There were so many interesting matches from places that are iconic: Indochine, Waldorf Astoria, Barneys, The Odeon, Mr. Chow, some matches you wouldn’t really find anymore,” Cavallo says. “We tried to come up with a good way to make use of them so that they wouldn’t go to waste.”

In an effort to share their collection with the rest of the world, the Cavallos turned to social media, where there were only a handful of matchbook collectors displaying their collections.”We wanted to do something different,” says Cavallo. “More colorful and feminine, something that would resonate with us. We place clothing textures for some three-dimensionality. All the fabrics you see come from mine or my mom’s closet, and we pick them in a way that best coincides with where the matchbook is from.”

While the account provides resources for phillumenists looking to add the next prize to their collection, it's not all for collectors. OH, WHAT A MATCH! doubles as a glossary of New York City hotspots and beyond to plan your weekends. “We initially started the account posting a lot of matches from hotels and restaurants, so it kind of took that route at the beginning. But I think it kind of evolved from just being an account on restaurant matches, realizing that we had matches from other places that we wanted to introduce, like fashion brands and clothing shops. I think it could be a point of reference for people coming from different backgrounds — design, fashion, hospitality, travel — and coming together in this community.”

As matches are more difficult to find these days, it’s always a gamble which places actually have matches up for grabs. “Sometimes it’s guessing and just walking in, other times I list restaurants I want to go to just for matches, or I’ll go and ask if they have matches first,” she says. “It definitely takes some trial and error.” Asking Cavallo to pick a favorite from her collection is like asking to pick a favorite child, but she says her Indochine matchbook, the NoHo classic serving French-Vietnamese fare and noted favorite of artists like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, links mother and daughter. The holy grail matchbook she’d love to get her hands on, Cavallo says, is an ultra-rare Studio 54 matchbook from the glory of New York’s disco nightlife. “I’ve been dying to get my hands on it, I saw there was a bidding war on eBay for one a couple of years ago, but I was late to the game,” she says.

Perhaps the most unique feature that sets the mother-daughter account apart is the element of a greater community incorporated via their Match of the Day series. The Cavallos select fellow collectors and interview them about their collections. “I started to ask followers or interesting looking people if they were collectors and if they wanted to be interviewed,” she says. “Most people never turn down the request, I’ve had only a few people say, ‘Oh, sorry. I don’t collect.’”

Alice has heard many stories since she and her mother began. One that stands out came from writer, retro enthusiast and fellow phillumenist Yanis Carreto. “Yanis told us about the story of an old woman from France who married a soldier after World War II and migrated with him to the United States. She was living in this neighborhood, somewhere in the U.S., and Yanis had the opportunity to meet her 15-or-so years ago. She had an extremely interesting life and she had this huge matchbook collection that she passed down to Yanis and said to her, ‘Travel as much as you can, do it with urgency, see the world, learn from it and always keep something for yourself. I have collected these matchbooks during my travels around the world, you can have them so that you can add your own”. As I have inherited my grandmother’s collection and added my own matches of memorable nights and trips. “When you’re finished, pass them on,” the woman said. “Together we will have seen the world.’”