Vintage matchbooks galore at this collector’s paradise

It’s not hard to strike up an illuminating conversation at a meeting of the Angelus Matchcover Club. Just ask someone about their collection.

Since its inception in 1951, the club has devoted itself to appreciating all things matchcovers. At one of the club’s recent meetups in Pasadena, about 15 or so members rustled through box after box of vintage matchbooks as they talked about their recent finds.

One member was looking for covers from Mexico; another sought out airline memorabilia. A gentleman proudly displayed his binder of covers devoted to hot dogs, as well as a whole other binder devoted to covers advertising or featuring chips, pretzels or peanuts. A younger member dug through boxes of “freebies,” a collection the club has purchased or that was donated, looking for books mentioning classic L.A. eateries, while the club’s president, Denise McKinney, explained match collecting lore and terminology, from “features” — books where the matches themselves have art on them — to “bobtails,” or matchcovers that no longer feature the original striker and thus are less collectible.

Denise McKinney’s matchbook cover collection.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

A woman stands outdoors leaning over a table that holds binders full of matchcovers.

Denise McKinney reviews her own matchbook cover collection.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

McKinney, one of the club’s younger members, joined in the late 2000s after buying matches on eBay from a club member, who invited her to come check things out. An administrative assistant from Riverside, McKinney says she got into collecting matchcovers after a dalliance with vintage Las Vegas ashtrays. “This is how a lot of people also get started, but I went to an estate sale and they had a brand new snifter full of matchbooks and I thought, ‘Oh, this looks fun,” and so I bought it,” she says. “When I went through it, I thought, ‘This is great. They go with the ashtrays,’ and so I just started getting more and more.” When she started getting disillusioned with the clutter and weight of her ashtray collection, she leaned into matchcovers. Eventually she became a full-bore phillumenist, the technical term for matchbook collectors.

“A matchbook is a little bit of history that you can hold in your hand,” McKinney says. “When I hold a matchbook, I know that someone got that matchbook 60 years ago and somehow held on to it. You feel like you’re back in time a little bit just by reading them and you learn a lot, you know, about society, culture and all kinds of weird little oddities.” She says she has thousands and thousands of matchcovers in her collection now, spread all over her house.

People sit at a table under a big umbrella, outside an open garage, sorting through matchbooks

During an Angelus Matchcover club meetup, folks sort through different matchbook covers to add to their collection.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

An assortment of matchbook covers fills a box.

An assortment of matchbook covers fills a box.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

It’s nothing compared with other collectors, some of whom even build out special rooms in their homes to devote to their cardboard curios, she says. McKinney seeks out mostly vintage Southern California covers, though she also likes covers advertising TV and radio stations, those emblazoned with clowns, flamingos, hamburgers or elephants, and those featuring what she’s dubbed “party animals,” a term that applies to creatures either enjoying a cocktail or engaged in cannibalistic practices (e.g., a steer holding a nice big steak).

Like McKinney, many of the club’s 100 or so members have a specific collecting niche, whether it’s Bob’s Big Boy matchcovers from Pasadena or books made before World War II. The club’s quarterly newsletter — which is mailed to all members who pay $10 in annual dues — is chock-full of stories about, say, tracking the rise of talking motion pictures through matchcover art or extolling the virtues of Douglas Trick Matches, which, when struck, spark or produce firework-like snakes made of black ash.

Matchcovers can provide an interesting look at a region or industry’s history. Bob Donnelson, the club’s vice president, pulled together more than 300 vintage covers from Whittier, Pico Rivera and La Habra for a display in the Whittier Public Library heralding the area’s history and development. Matchcovers not only detail the location and phone number of a business — whether it still exists or has been long forgotten — but they also sometimes feature a restaurant’s menu, a bar’s list of specials or a high school football team’s long-forgotten fall schedule.

“Matchcovers are a community resource,” McKinney says. “You may not know a place existed, but there’s a matchbook for it.”

That’s certainly part of the reason Marshall Pumphrey, another club member, started collecting. The president and curator of the Long Beach Heritage Museum, Pumphrey is committed to “preserving and protecting” the stories behind the city. “Matchbooks are the one item that can uncover all the layers of history,” he says, “because every business — and especially restaurants — always had matchbooks, even if the businesses didn’t last, so I can actually take the address of a matchbook and go through the last 100 years of what businesses were at various locations or in various buildings.”

Marshall Pumphrey looks through a collection of postcards

Marshall Pumphrey looks through a collection of postcards during an Angelus Matchcover club meeting.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Pumphrey — who also collects airline matchbooks as a nod to his 30 years working for TWA — says he loves coming to Matchcover Club meetings not just because of the goodies he might come home with but because, as he puts it, “The people there are knowledgeable about everything.

“You go to this nice couple’s home in Pasadena and their whole garage is filled with boxes of matches,” he explains. “They hand you a bag, and you just help yourself to whatever interests you. Then there’s an auction and a raffle, and everyone discusses what they’re interested in. There’s an expert on every particular subject you can imagine, and a lot of the people that come to these meetings have written books, so they’re always looking to uncover history, and matchbooks are a key element of how they do that.”

Fortunately or unfortunately for the Angelus Matchcover Club, though, a lot of those experts are getting older, meaning the club is making a push to recruit new blood. “It’s a pretty senior group,” says Pumphrey. “If you go to postcard shows, where you generally see a lot of matchbook collectors, you never see anybody there under the age of 50.” (Stamp collector events are even worse, he says, noting that at those, most everyone “has a walker or a wheelchair.”)

Two men seated at a table sort through boxes of matchbook covers.

Ron Quint, left, and Kevin Fleming sort through boxes of matchbook covers.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Matchbooks fill a box during an Angelus Matchcover club meeting.

Matchbooks fill a box during an Angelus Matchcover club meeting.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Luckily for the Matchcover Club and for the future of matchbook collecting, the bar to entry isn’t all that high. “You can get a ton of matchbooks for practically free,” says club member John Maxwell. “If you come to a meeting, they will give you a ton of them for free. And by a ton, we’re talking 2,000, and 2,000 of anything is a lot to begin with.”

Considering that the Angelus Club is the country’s third oldest — behind only the national Rathkamp Matchcover Society and the Empire Club out of New York, which started just a year or so earlier — membership should be appealing to those appreciative of the city’s history and heritage. “So many L.A. people are really, really into L.A. history, and they’re right to be because it’s fabulous and it’s interesting,” says McKinney. “Now, we just need to get the message out there about what an integral part matchbook collecting is of that history.”

The Angelus Matchcover Club meets the third Sunday of January, February, March, September, October and November at noon in Pasadena. For more information or to join, email Cheryl Crill at [email protected].

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