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Matchbox labels and the stories they tell.

THE MANUFACTURING OF MATCHBOXES IN INDIA BEGAN AROUND 1895 WHEN a few factories were established in the vicinity of Calcutta with the help of knowhow from Japanese settlers in the city. Up until this time, the country's requirements for matchboxes were entirely met by imports mainly from the major match-producing countries of Sweden, Austria and Japan. While at first the labels largely reflected subjects and themes popular or relevant in the producing countries, many later labels show a clear attempt to include subjects and images that local consumers would be able to identify with (figures A1-16).

The earliest Indian factories faced difficulties in producing matchboxes of a quality that matched those being imported. As a result, they were unable to increase production and market shares by significant levels. In 1920, the government imposed an import tax, mainly to raise revenues but also to incentivize local production.

In 1923, in order to escape import tax, Swedish Match established factories in India and by 1929 the Western India Match Co. (wimco) had five factories spread across the country and several other ancillary units for the supply of splints and veneers. Market share was rapidly increased through a mix of aggressive sales strategies and an organized approach to branding, marketing and distribution. Most factories in the north of the country, unable to compete with this, began to close down or were taken over by wimco, till in 1947 there were reportedly only two or three still functioning Indian-owned factories outside of the match-producing districts of Ramanathapuram and Tirunelveli in Madras Presidency (Tamil Nadu), with the neighbouring region of Kerala providing the ancillary veneering and splint industries.

The story of the south Indian factories began in 1923 when two young enterprising men travelled to Calcutta to learn the business of handmade matchboxes, and on their return set up factories in the south. Some of these were South Indian Lucifer Match Works, Kaleeswari Colour Match Works, Sri Ram Match Works and Sattur Original Match Works. Through a labour-intensive approach and competitive strategies based on lower costs and prices, these factories gradually flourished in Sivakasi and the surrounding areas where labour was abundant and cheap. With support from the government via lower excise rates, these factories continued to grow in number and collectively proved to be a force to reckon with.

Matchbox production in independent India has been predominated by WIMCO and it continues to be underlined by innovation in marketing and sales versus low cost production in the labour-based small-scale sector, WIMCO pioneered the use of cardboard in matchboxes in the mid-1970s. However, even then, they were already losing market share to the large unorganized sector. This sector grew over the decades and today, India exports matchboxes to most countries in Europe and Africa, and in a smaller measure to the rest of the world.

Traders' and Merchants' Labels (figures B1-14)

The earliest trend visible on matchboxes in India is the replacement of the manufacturer's name by the importer's name on packaging elements and in promotional material. Matchbox factories became less relevant and the importer or merchant became more prominent. There were three basic types of labels--those with overprinting on standard designs, those with inclusions in standard designs that did not require redrawing, and labels completely redrawn to include the extra information. In some cases, both labels with and without the importer's name appear.

While this form of branding was meant to be an assurance of quality and to encourage loyalty, it often ended up giving the importing merchants a bad name when poor quality was encountered. Since merchants were directly affected, they began to take responsibility for the designs and subjects used on labels. Many merchants became part owners in Indian factories and even established factories of their own while they continued to import matchboxes from abroad. This trend was quite prevalent till 1947 when India attained independence and all imports of matchboxes were stopped.

Themes from Mythology (figures C1-16)

The earliest labels used in India did not cater to local tastes. Oftentimes the labels were in foreign languages and images included unfamiliar subjects, but as competition among sellers grew, so did the inclusion of images and subjects more relevant to India. Mythology, religion, art and architecture were obvious choices. There was no shortage of visual material and artists were commissioned to redraw from prints and paintings, commissioned portraits, sketches and drawings, and photographs. The most skilled work is seen on early examples dating from about 1890, with a steady deterioration after World War I. Many crude and poorly printed labels appeared during the two major Swadeshi movements in the first half of the 20th century.

Several of Raja Ravi Varma's paintings and oleographs and those of his contemporaries were reproduced for use on matchboxes. The Ravi Varma Press at Lonavla near Bombay even printed labels for the Deccan Match Manufacturing Company.

Nationalist Symbols (figures D1-16)

During the partition of Bengal, and after 1905, many labels included the word "Swadeshi" in English, as well as in Hindi, Bengali and other Indian languages. While many matchboxes continued to be of foreign origin and labels were printed abroad, there was a gradual shift towards Indian-made matchboxes till about 1930, when Indian matchboxes with the help of lower taxes began to gain market share.

The growing popular support for the movement for Indian independence led to the inclusion of symbols (such as the flag and charkha) and images of personalities involved in the struggle for freedom, right up to 1947. The labels and subject matter also underline the support for swadeshi or indigenous production. From 1947, there was a profusion of images including maps, the flag, the Lion Capital, Ashoka Chakra, and other symbols associated with independent India. Nationalist imagery made a return during and just after the wars with China and Pakistan (1963-68).

Royal Portraits (figures E1-16)

In their search for subjects more relevant to India, the Europeans discovered a wealth of readily available material in the form of sketches, photographs, portraits and paintings of Indian royalty, past and present.

Sets of matchboxes with these images were first produced in Austria around 1903, and after World War I these were reissued in Czechoslovakia. Japanese manufacturers copied these and also produced variations in the form of sets of matchboxes with pictures of maharajas in various poses and on horseback.

The labels, usually drawn with a fair amount of attention to detail, also led to rulers of states like Jamnagar, Bhavnagar and Cochin producing their own official versions for personal use.

Images of Courtesans (figures F1-16)

Gauhar Jan, India's first recorded performing artist, was portrayed on a matchbox by Solo Match Works of Austria in 1903 and the image became an instant success. The image was redrawn and reissued several times between 1903 and 1915. Match producers in Sweden and Japan, and A.E. Matcheswala of India, produced versions based on the original photograph, and Belgium produced a version drawn completely from imagination. Gauhar Jan's success as a brand led to a series of other "Jans" on matchboxes, both real and fictitious, wimco even established a brand called Baijee (the title given to a professional woman dancer/singer in those days) and continued to issue labels with these images until at least 1980, after which this brand appears to have been discontinued.

Advertising on Matchbox Labels (figures G1-16)

Matchboxes were also used to promote cigar and cigarette brands, and in India, bidis/biris too. Many cigarette manufacturers commissioned factories to make matchboxes for them which were put out for sale as well as given away free with their products. Soon, other product manufacturers saw the advantages of this practice and advertising for tobacco products flourished on matchbox labels, WIMCO marketed available space on matchboxes labels and then made them to order. Hotels, airlines, shipping lines and restaurants routinely used their own custom-made matchboxes, often with decorative match heads and coloured sticks.

The medium appears to have been extensively explored during the early days of independent India, with social messages, government schemes and promotions also appearing on matchboxes.


All images courtesy the author.

Caption: A1. An early patriotic label depicting Dadabhai Naoroji, from c. 1905.

Caption: A2 and 3. Two very early labels for Best Safety Matches, made at Salkia near Calcutta where the first few match factories were established.

Caption: A4. A mid-1930S label depicting Sant Tukaram, from a trader named Matcheswala, who also had interests in several match factories.

Caption: A5-12. Early WIMCO brands established in the 1920s and '30s, that continued to be in production till at least the '70s.

Caption: A13-16. Old match factory labels from south India. This small handmade and unorganized sector produced some of the most imaginative images and brands as well as a large number of imitations.

Caption: Caption: B1-3. The three types of merchant labels.

Caption: B4-6. Three early labels from a Parsi merchant, Framjee Bhikajee, who showed little inclination to "Indianize" the subject matter.

Caption: B7-10. Four rare labels from a little-known merchant in Calcutta.

Caption: B11-14. Japanese labels imported by Tata & Sons.

Caption: Caption: C1-4. Four beautifully drawn labels. Older labels were generally better produced in terms of the art work.

Caption: C5-8. Labels depicting fearsome goddesses. The use of religious subjects and images is seldom seen today.

Caption: C9-12. Labels depicting the avatars of Vishnu.

Caption: C13-16. The works of Ravi Varma and his contemporaries were extensively appropriated for use on matchbox labels.

Caption: Caption: D1-8. The charkha, the Congress flag and other symbols of the struggle for freedom appeared frequently on matchbox labels during the Swadeshi movements.

Caption: D9-12. Prominent leaders of the nationalist movement were frequently depicted on labels. Here, the label supposedly representing Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel erroneously carries his brother Vithalbhai's portrait.

Caption: D13-16. Labels depicting symbols of a newly independent India. Nationalist Symbols (figures D1-16)

Caption: Caption: E1-16 Matchbox labels carefully and accurately copied from a wealth of readily available material in the form of sketches, photographs, portraits and paintings of Indian royalty.

Caption: Caption: F1-16 The success of Gauhar Jan as a matchbox brand led to a profusion of images of performers on matchboxes; some real, others fictitious.

Caption: Caption: G1-16 From cigarettes to butter, soaps to batteries, all manner of products were advertised on matchboxes. Most of these advertisements were used on the backs of standard brands in the early days, but later advertising began to appear on the front as well.


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Author:Hemmady, Gautam
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2017
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