Sometimes I wish I’d been born in an earlier age. Especially when it comes to experiencing New York City. Of course, you only imagine good things when considering another time and place. Those vignettes you conjure are picture perfect, with tidy sidewalks and cozy cafes, smiling maître-ds and sparkling wine; when modernity meant simple things like “refrigerated air” and a wedge of pie from behind a little door in the automat. 

Nothing spurs such blissful reimagining more than vintage matchbooks, ordinary objects of days gone by that, in a flash, provide a glimpse into a life that *might* have been had you experienced New York City in the 1940s, ‘50s or ‘60s.

Not a boxing fan myself, but this image is a ‘knock-out!’

In the flea markets that once proliferated around West 26th Street, I was always on the lookout for old matchbooks, particularly those that promoted the hotels, bars and restaurants of Gotham. Every flea market trek meant another matchbook tossed into the fish bowl on my coffee table, which soon overflowed. Wanting to find a better way to enjoy them, I “shucked” them of their matchsticks, flattened them and covered a paneled screen in a kind of crazy matchbook collage. There were hundreds.

Each matchbook is a little work of art, with fabulous fonts, colorful inks and images both plain and fanciful. And they whisper stories, however brief, of New York’s celebrated nightlife, of the romance and adventure possible beyond a canopied entrance or down the stairs to a dimly lit rathskeller.

That’s what I’m talking ’bout!

People smoked then so matches were ubiquitous. And until the invention of the disposable lighter, which forever damaged the match-making industry, most of the better hotels and restaurants offered matchbooks for free, complete with their own advertising.

Love these different fonts, especially the Deco-inspired.
Who wouldn’t want to ‘dine, dance and romance’ in the Hawaiian Room under the care and service of Chas. E. Rochester?

It made sense. With one cheap give-away, a restaurant or hotel could crow about its service. In other words: advertise. You could put your best face forward on the tiny canvas of a book of matches. From family crests to foreign monarchs to horse-drawn carriages, a restaurant or hotel could convey a sense of exclusivity and refinement through the images on the cover. 

Horse-drawn carriages seem to be a theme. Do they represent opulence? Adventure? Or simply the comfort that awaits the weary traveler?
Love the ‘Lincoln log’ font on these old Cabin Grill matches, a steakhouse long shuttered.
Old Homestead’s still serving up New York Strip in the ‘meat mart,’ as they called the meatpacking district back in the day. Another horse-drawn carriage.

Take me back to the days when a telephone exchange brought a hint of intrigue. Would I have been an ELdorado 5, a CHickering 4, a PLaza 3?

In nearly every noir film from the ‘40s or ‘50s, matchbooks make an appearance. Maybe just to light the ever-present cigarettes; maybe for that burst of light that makes Lauren Bacall’s eyes glitter. Or maybe as a kind of comic relief like in North by Northwest, when Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill throws a matchbook bearing his initials—“ROT”—to Eva Marie Saint with a warning scribbled inside.

People collected matchbooks. Reminders of a “gay” night out, a special occasion, a weekend getaway, they were the perfect souvenir: lightweight, sturdy and free. You could toss them into your purse or pocket. Years later, there it was—like a saved photograph or postcard—ushering back the warmth of a subterranean bar, the sharp swallow of chilled gin, the thrill of Basie on the bandstand.

One of my favorites. Thankfully, the Village Vanguard is still swinging hard on Seventh Avenue.
Duke Ellington? Harry James? The Count? Once more, once!

For someone like me matchbooks inspire a kind of Nano fiction, a one-sentence summing up of urban adventures that might have been…

‘But he’d checked out, the front desk man informed me (and my shattered heart), with no forwarding address.’
‘Of course I couldn’t go back; it was ‘his’ place after all, not mine.’
‘Was it my borrowed mink that got us in or Susan, with her cover girl looks and thousand watt smile?’
‘It was a solitary meal on a cold Thanksgiving night but she’d eventually find a new sort of family.’

Forget fiction. Let’s not pretend that all was well. Even matchbooks hint at our less then savory past:

Good riddance to the Plantation Bar and the Hotel Dixie for that matter. I shudder to think of what images might have been found inside.
I probably wouldn’t have fared well in a joint where women are depicted as nothing more than a bubbly consumption.
Stereotypes abound, unfortunately.
Not sad to see the phony ‘Asian’ font and derogatory images relegated to the past.

Like most art, matchbooks speak volumes about what we yearn for and aspire to, sometimes even our stumbles along the way.

And since vintage matchbooks have something to say, why not let the rest of these beauties speak for themselves?

Striking, aren’t they?

I don’t really want to go back in time. I’ll take the “now” over rosy-hued reminiscences that never were. But isn’t it fun, now and then, to imagine yourself in an old New York where the velvet ropes part, the Champaign cocktails flow and the whole town is yours for the painting?

Right this way, your table’s waiting!