Q: This miniature patent leather shoe/boot belonged to my grandfather. You keep matches inside and strike them on the bottom. I know it is over 100 years old. Could you give me some information on its origin and value?
A: The Chinese are said to have had a sulfur match as early as the 570s AD. It was later called a “light-bringing slave” or a “fire inch-stick”
But European friction matches (i.e. matches that are lighted by striking them against a rough surface and letting the resulting friction ignite the chemicals in the head) had to wait until the early 19th century. It was not until 1826 that John Walker, a Scotsman, invented a friction match that was ignited by moving the head between the folds of a piece of sandpaper.
Several people “improved” on Walker’s invention and some are said to have stolen the idea. Samuel Jones patented a version that he called the “Lucifer match,” which was well named after the devil himself because it could be erratic — even explosive — and sometimes gave off a very bad smell.
However, we believe that this charming little shoe-shaped box did not start off life as a match safe. Instead, we think that it is a mid-19th century English snuff box that may have been converted at some later date to hold matches. Why do we think this? Because we have seen hundreds of these boxes and they were all designed to hold snuff.
On his 1494-96 voyage to the new world, Christopher Columbus noticed the natives sniffing (snuffing?) a powder that turned out to have been made from tobacco. Columbus brought a quantity of this substance back and it soon became the rage of Europe — especially in France and Spain.
During his exile in France, the man who would become England’s King Charles II developed a snuff habit. He brought it to England where it became very fashionable among aristocrats and those who wanted to be fashionable. It was seen as more refined than smoking, and some doctors saw snuff as a cure for coughs, colds, and headaches.
Snuff boxes from the 18th and 19th century came in a variety of shapes — most were ovals, round, square or rectangular, but some were figural. Collectors find everything from skulls, shells, and coins to animals (rabbits, dogs, and the like), musical instruments and human figures.
Some of these boxes were intended for the wealthy and were made from solid gold or silver. Many were enameled or encrusted with jewels, but others were made from more humble materials such as the papier-mache, which is the material from which this shoe shaped box was made (papier-mache is paper pulp combined with cloth, starch and/or wallpaper paste).
Shoe-shaped items were very popular with Victorians, and these shoe-shaped snuff boxes were very popular. Some were very plain but others had a bit of mother-of- pearl, and a few had small inserts of silver where an initial could be engraved. There appears to be one of these in the lid of the object in today’s question.
Examining the bottom of the box belonging to D. N., we do see a roughened area on the bottom that is not like the striking area found on most Victorian match safes, so we think this was added later to convert it from a snuff box to a match safe. Insurance replacement value on this circa 1860 box is in the $125 to $175 range.
Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.