When he speaks about his collections, Mike Avitt can light up a room – literally, but not actually – with the matchbook collection he started in the mid-1970s.
Avitt, 63, of Afton collects matchbook covers, a hobby he picked up in 1974 when he began stashing the matches he periodically picked up from gas stations and restaurants.
“I was smoking back then, and I’m just looking at this matchbook and it says, ‘I’m from Mount Ayr’ ... and I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ I took it home and put it in a sack,” Avitt said.
As the sack filled over time, Avitt said he lost some interest. However, his interest was piqued in the 1990s when he saw an ad for Rathkamp Match Cover Society in a postcard magazine for paper collectors. The society was founded in 1939 by a group of enthusiastic match cover collectors in New York City. Today, there are over 9,000 members, including Avitt. Members come from around the U.S., Canada and abroad.
By joining the Rathkamp Match Cover Society, Avitt was able to access its member directory and started writing to those located in Iowa. Two wrote back and the trading began.
Avitt said to retain their value, matchbooks need to be whole and in pristine condition. However, many matchbook collectors, known as phillumenists, remove the flammable matchsticks from inside the covers and display them flat. The pages are similar to the pages used by baseball card collectors, which Avitt also collected.
“I’ve always been attracted to paper. In the ‘60s I started collecting baseball cards and I love the back as much as the front,” he said.
Avitt said he sometimes wonders if his love of the items he collects – paper products such as matchbook covers, postcards, old checks and advertisements – is hereditary.
“My grandpa was a stamp collector. My mother was a hoarder, my dad was a hoarder and they hoarded mostly paper,” he said. Avitt chuckled when he shared that he still has the receipt from when his mother took the family dog to the vet in 1972 and detention slips from his formative years.
Today, his collection is extensive and counts his match covers in the tens of thousands. Neatly arranged in binders are some that advertise early soda pop and candy companies, bygone local restaurants and ill-fated businesses.
“I started amassing a really good Iowa collection – between four and five thousand Iowa matchbooks,” said Avitt.
Avitt has collected nearly 150 matchbook covers from Des Moines area restaurants alone, many of which he has patronized himself.
Value to collectors
“Matchbook collecting is extremely unpopular,” said Avitt.
Some may think of matchbook covers as worthless pieces of paper, but in Avitt’s view, they are a historical, cultural and political record of life in the U.S.
“Everything was advertised on match covers,” he said.
One of Avitt’s favorites is a 1933 match book cover from a bar in Guthrie Center that displays a University of Iowa football schedule.
“They played Ames College. Ames wasn’t a university yet,” he said.
Avitt said many people forget how quickly society changes and also how dependent it has been on matches, even in recent history.
“There was a time when most of the population smoked, and now hardly anyone smokes, “ he said. “Rural Ringgold County did not get electricity until 1945, so when you went out to the barn to milk the cow, you lit the lantern with matches. When you went out to burn your trash, you used matches.”
Avitt said because matches were so useful, it was a popular and inexpensive way to advertise between the 1930s and ‘50s.
Most match book collectors, Avitt said, have a niche. Fellow collector Wally Miller of Creston collects farm implement antiquities, such as vintage match book covers of regional farm implement dealers.
Avitt said most collectors have a reason they collect certain items, whether it’s sentimental from their youth, or a connection to a product or place. For Avitt, it’s for those reasons and more.
“I love old advertising. I love art deco. I love the color. I love the font. I love the five cent,“ he said.
Avitt is a historian for Shannon City Church and takes photographs for the Railroad Station Historical Society and Iowa Railroad Historical Society. He authors the weekly “Snapshots of History” column in the Mount Ayr Record News, is the secretary and treasurer of the Mount Ayr Alumni Association, and is a historical paper specialist – calendars, photographs, advertising, yearbooks, telephone books, pamphlets, history books – at the Mount Ayr Depot Museum, located at 306 N. Taylor St.