Matches from the Fire Hazard Standpoint
Various Types and How Improved—The Dangerous Varieties—Abuse of Matches and Carelessness in Use of Them Have Caused Great Many Fires—Mice Theory Exploded
BEFORE proceeding to discuss the subject which has been assigned me, I feel that I would be remiss in my duty were I not to pay tribute in recognizing the splendid work of the manhood of Canada who are organized in one of the most important manual and yet scientific branches of our body politic, under the control and direction of the members of this Association. Taken as a whole there is no more brave and courageous body of men than those who comprise the matchless and efficient fire brigades scattered throughout this broad Dominion; men who are always alert and ready for the call of service; aye, and sacrifice if need be, to save and protect the lives and property of their fellow citizens; men who combine confidence with resolution in the presence of danger, and who are led by officers who have to think fast and act quickly.
A proper knowledge of the changes that have taken place in the composition and manufacture of matches during the last few years should be more generally spread, and the enormous loss of life and property with which this country is annually taxed by the careless use of matches should be summarily curtailed. A great many harsh things have been said about matches—they have been maligned—they have been placed in the pen as criminals; but the evidence adduced goes to show that the careless users—the careless smokers—were really the guilty persons.
Types of Early Matches
Matches were frequently named from the material of which their tips were principally composed. The chemical match now long obsolete was used for producing fire and the sulphur match for communicating it. The chemical match ignited when the combustible mixture, usually sulphur, sugar and potassium chlorate, was dipped into acid. Another of the early makes of matches was known as the oxymuriatic match, which was tipped with potassium, a greenish yellow chemical, poisonous and possessing an offensive odor, the same as chlorine.
Sulphur entered into the manufacture of matches to a large extent and in its chemical relation is the representative of oxygen, to which it is equivalent. In olden times there was also in use what we might call the “box match”; this being a metallic box containing tinder, and usually also flint and steel by which a spark might be sent into the tinder to ignite it.
Matches of One Hundred Years Ago
The first really practical friction matches were made in England in 1827 by John Walker, a druggist of Stockton-on-Tees. The invention, however, must be credited to Sir William Congreve, after whom the Congreve match was named, and who was also the inventor of the Congreve rocket in 1808. One of the early forms of this useful article was the brimstone match, made by cutting very thin strips of highly resinous or very dry pine wood, about six inches long, with pointed ends dipped in sulphur; thus prepared, the sulphur points instantly ignited when applied to a spark obtained by striking fire into tinder from a flint and steel. This type of match was in almost universal use until about one hundred years ago when several ingenious inventions followed each other in rapid succession and displaced it completely.
The first of these inventions was the “instantaneous-light box,” which consisted of a small tin box containing a bottle of sulphuric acid with sufficient fibrous asbestos to soak it up and prevent it spilling, and a supply of properly prepared matches consisting of small splints of wood about two inches long, one end of which was coated with chemicals prepared by mixing six parts of chlorate of potash, two parts of powdered loaf sugar, one part of powder gum Arabic, colored with a little vermilion, and made into a thin paste by adding water. The splints were dipped into melted sulphur and afterward into the prepared paste. They were readily ignited by dipping the ends into the sulphuric acid.
Lucifer, “the light-bringing morning star.” gave his name to the succeeding variety of match. The bottle of sulphuric acid and all its inconveniences were dispensed with. The match was made of either small strips of paste-board or wood, and the inflammable mixture was a compound of chlorate of potash and sulphuret of antimony, with enough powdered gum to render it adhesive when mixed with water. The mixture was applied over the end of the little stick and dipped in melted brimstone. These matches were ignited by the friction caused by drawing them through a piece of bent sand-paper and gave off choking, sulphurous fumes. They have since passed away like their predecessors, but have left their name behind, which is popularly applied to other kinds since invented.
Next to the lucifer in importance was the Congreve. the match which has, in a general way, survived to the present day. The body of the match was usually of wood, but some, called Vestas, were made of very thin waxed taper. The composition used on these matches consisted of phosphorus and nitre; or phosphorus, sulphur and chlorate of potash, one of the salts of potassium (when a small piece of potassium is thrown upon water, a form of chemical reaction at once sets in, and the hydrogen formed takes fire and burns with a violet flame), mixed with melted gum or glue and colored with vermilion, red lead, umber, soot or other coloring matter. The proportions used were almost as varied as the manufacturers were numerous. The Congreve match required only a slight friction to ignite it, for which purpose the bottom or some other part of the box was made rough by attaching a piece of sandpaper; or covering it with sand-paper after wetting it with glue.
Invention of the Safety Match
To “Bryant and May” is accorded the credit of patenting and introducing the “safety match,” although it was invented by a Swede named Lundstrom in 1855 who made matches in Jonkoping. The only essential difference between Congreves and the “safety match,” as originally manufactured, was in leaving out the phosphorus from the composition applied to the match, and instead mixing it with the sand on the friction surface, thus separating this highly inflammable material from its intimate and dangerous connection with the sulphur and chlorate of potash. This simple invention of “light only on their own box” matches, removed to a large extent the dangers and objections to the use of the Congreve match.
Match heads containing white phosphorus would “go off” when subjected to heat of 150 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit; the properly made present day strike anywhere matches will not ignite until a temperature of 300 to 330 degrees is reached, and the safety or strike on the box matches will not ignite until they are subjected to a temperature of 350 to 370 degrees Fahrenheit.
When smokers object to the high cost of matches on account of the Excise Tax they can feel consoled as they contemplate the high value placed on matches in some parts of the world. It is said that in Turkestan wives can be bought for a box of matches and a man may have as many wives as he desires.
The Safety Match
Among the hundred million there is a class or caste
of superior aristocrats—numbering about one in ten —known as “Safety Matches,” whose popularity and numbers are growing steadily as the people become better acquainted with their superiority and advantages. The head of the safety match, which is so strongly advocated for general use, is made of chlorate of potash which furnishes oxygen for burning; and amorphous phosphorus, the fire producing ingredient, is painted on the side of the box.
Matches, like any other commodity, vary in quality, based upon the grade of materials used and the scientific knowledge of the manufacturer; so that in this business, as well as in other lines of industry, poor, trashy merchandise is turned out which, while the first cost is perhaps a little less, are really the most expensive and by far the most dangerous. Considering them from an economical standpoint, the waste is excessive, for instead of getting a light from the match the stick is frequently so weak on account of poor lumber being used or cut across the grain, that it lacks sufficient strength to withstand the light pressure necessary when the head is drawn over the friction surface to light it; or, if it happens to ignite, the head is liable to break off and fly into curtains or other inflammable material that may be near. I have been at a banquet where eight hundred people were enjoying themselves when one of the men wishing to light his cigar struck a match and the flaming head flew on a lady’s dress which blazed up instantly and as a result the flames spread to other inflammable materials. A panic was only averted by the presence of mind of cool headed men, but the sad thing to relate is that the woman died as a result of her burns. I could cite numerous cases of serious fires occurring as the result of poorly made, flimsy matches.
Fire Menace from After-glow
Another and possibly equally as dangerous a match is that in which the stick retains its after-glow. A match is struck, the weed is lit, and the user indifferent to his surroundings, throws the match carelessly away, with the result that although it may smoulder for some time harmlessly, a favorable breeze or current of air may cause it to blaze and ignite inflammable material with the usual serious results.
Fire Is the Result of Carelessness with Matches
The most prolific cause of preventable fires in all walks of life is unquestionably the careless user of matches. The habit of carrying strike anywhere matches loose in pockets results in many serious fires. In pulling something out of one’s pocket it is very easy to haul out a match by mistake and drop it on the floor, barn or other place where inflammable material, hay, straw, etc., has accumulated. Subsequently it may be stepped on by a horse or a mere man and start a fire. Wherever there is human life, there are matches. They can usually be found in every room in the house and in the pockets of every suit of clothes worn by most men in the country. There is a fascination about fire and especially about the burning of the match, for the smallest child. A child uses matches carelessly because they are placed where he or she can readily get them and because children see these matches constantly handled in a careless fashion by their parents.
It is well to form a habit of striking a match away from you, and not toward you; so that if the head flies off or the stick breaks it will not have a chance to set fire to your clothing. Always close the box before lighting a match on it. If matches are stuck in a box holder see that the heads are not exposed, otherwise the flame may set fire to the whole box. One of the most frequent forms of involuntary incendiarism known is the way thoughtless individuals —generally smokers—throw away matches without taking the simple precaution of blowing them out, and assuring themselves that they are extinguished— a matter of a second or two, although they were perfectly willing to spend fifteen seconds’ time in igniting the match and lighting the tobacco. This careless practice is universally prevalent throughout the country.
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Matches as a Fire Hazard
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There is one safe way to dispose of every lighted match. Break it in two before throwing it away. If you will preach this doctrine broadcast throughout the country people will become accustomed to breaking the matches, and you will find that the number of match fires will be greatly reduced.
The day will come when we will not be permitted to be careless with matches or blind to the ethics of fire prevention. Individual responsibility will be so great that personal indifference will be pushed aside and the causes of fire protection and fire prevention given their proper status. The appalling size of the national ash-heap will be reduced, through the elimination of our worst and most deeply rooted national failing— Carelessness.
When the Ontario Fire Prevention League, Inc., was organized in August, 1918, it advocated “the universal adoption and use of the safety match which will strike only on the box, and legislation prohibiting smoking in all parts of factories, industrial and mercantile buildings, except in such fire-proof rooms as may be especially approved for the purpose, by fire departments.” That tenet of faith has since been reaffirmed and although the loss of life and destruction of property as the result of the careless use of matches throughout this country has been appalling, yet we are somewhat encouraged by knowing that the number of fires and amount of loss occurring from this cause in the province of Ontario, at least, has been on the decrease.
The average number of match fires for the three years 1918 to 1920 inclusive, has been one thousand and seventeen, with an average yearly loss of $413,222, out of a total average number of 9,477 fires, aggregating an average yearly loss of $12,653,063. The total number of fires caused by carelessness with matches and children playing with them in 1920, in Ontario, were 913, and the amount of loss was $326,231. To this loss, charged directly to carelessness with matches, might well be added a large portion of the loss caused by the careless smoker, hires under this classification during the last three years have averaged 468 in the province, entailing an average yearly loss of $339,296. This means that more than fifteen per cent, of the fires occurring in Ontario each year are caused by carelessness with matches and by careless smokers.
In the statistics compiled by the National Board, matches and smoking are combined under causes that are strictly preventable. In 1917 the total loss from this classification amounted to $15,406,165 and in 1918 the losses amounted to $16,453,562. It is of noteworthy consideration that of twelve classifications under which
the National Board places strictly preventable causes of fires, that of matches and smoking heads the list by several million dollars.
It is inconsistent with modern ethics, but nevertheless a fact, that in this country a man can burn his neighbor’s house with impunity, providing, of course, he burns his own at the same time and that the job is the result of carelessness and not of malicious intent.
This little flame that you could crush between your thumb and finger, if given the opportunity in the hands of a careless person has the potentiality of devastating the city. You all have had the sad and tragic experience from the result of fires caused by the careless handling of matches and more particularly the heartrending scenes of innocent child life being quickly snuffed out by children playing with matches, carelessly left within their reach by parents, who, like the match itself, do not use their heads for thinking.
Mice and Matches
The results of exhaustive tests by the Underwriters’ Laboratories has upset the popular theory that rats and mice ate the heads of matches, thus igniting them, and were accountable for many mysterious fires. The tests show that rats and mice would starve to death before they would eat the modern head. A supplementary series of tests covering a period of eight months were also made with equally conclusive results, no ignitions whatever having occurred. Specially constructed cages similar to those used in the previous tests were utilized, three rats being placed in a cage for each test, with 24 boxes of matches. Three brands were used, single dips, double dips and marguerites, and three tests were made of each brand. The first test was made without feeding or watering the rats, in the second they were given water but no food and in the third they were given food and water for two weeks and then starved, but supplied with water until they died. In not a single case was a match ignited. Occasionally the straw board boxes were gnawed and the boxes broken open and the matches scattered all around, but although frequently the rats ate one another, in not a single case in either of the tests was a match ignited nor any evidence of the teeth of the animal shown on the matches. A small quantity of straw was also placed in the cages in order to facilitate the evidence of fire in case of any ignition.
These experiments, scientifically conducted by technical experts, show that ingredients are used in the modern match composition whose odor, fumes and taste are strongly repugnant and obnoxious to rats and mice, and rodents will starve to death before they will attempt to gnaw such chemical compounds. Not only phosphorus but also the very latest non-poisonous matches with sesqui-sulphide as the igniting compound were used, so that it was conclusively demonstrated that there is no truth in the commonly accepted theory that rats and mice start fires with matches. It is considered improbable that a rat or mouse would gnaw the phosphorus tip, which is highly irritating and poisonous to animal life.
Constructive Legislation Required
Many people advocate the enactment of Dominion legislation prohibiting the use of any but safety matches—the kind that strike only on the box. To those who have given the match question serious consideration it is obvious that constructive legislation is necessary whereby the quality of matches would be standardized according to specfications such as the following:
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Matches as a Fire Hazard
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- Chemical proportion and stability of match composition.
- The match bulb to be inert and the tip protected.
- The match splint to stand severe test for bending and breaking.
- The match splint to be chemically impregnated to prevent an after-glow or to prevent a charcoal glow after the flame on the match stick has been extinguished.
- The match composition to be tested so as to conform with certain rigid specifications regarding resistance to shock and sensitiveness to friction.
The Underwriters’ Laboratories use carefully designed machines with delicate apparatus to test the matches before their label is affixed, thus eliminating the human element by using this delicate and precise scientific system.
Standard Law Suggested by the N. F. P. A.
It may be interesting for you to know of some of the provisions suggested for the enactment of a law to regulate the manufacture, storage, sale and distribution of matches, adopted by the National Board of Fire Underwriters and the N. F. P. A. several years ago.
Prohibition is made against the manufacture, storage, sale, and distribution of strike anywhere matches or any other type of double dipped matches, unless the bulb or first dip of such match is composed of a socalled safety or inert composition, non-ignitible on an abrasive surface; nor manufacture, sell or distribute matches which, when packed in compartments of five hundred approximate capacity and placed in an oven maintaining a constant temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit, will ignite in eight hours; nor manufacture, sell or dispose of blazer or so-called wind matches, whether of the so-called safety or strike anywhere type.
The proposed act also provides that the name of the manufacturer and the brand or trade mark under which matches are sold shall plainly bear such name and mark, and further provides tor the manner in which such matches shall be handled both in wholesale and retail stores, as well as providing for the way and the quantity in which they shall be packed.
One of the chief difficulties which we encounter in fire prevention work is the relative indifference of the ordinary citizen. Most people have never had any intimate contact with a fire, have never lost a member of their family, a home, or factory, through fire, and therefore regard with good natured indifference the strenuous appeals and logical arguments of those who know about the dangers of fire and the ways and means of preventing it.
I would make the suggestion that important and farreaching missionary work can be done by each member of the association in towns and villages adjacent to your home by helping to organize and properly equip local fire brigades.
In closing let me assure you that Mr. Heaton and myself greatly appreciate your splendid co-operation and the great interest you have taken in the important patriotic work of conserving our natural resources and created wealth. I thank you most cordially for the attention and consideration you have given to my remarks on matches, smoking and carelessness; and the greatest of these is Carelessness.
Note—Excerpts from paper read before the Dominion Association of Fire Chiefs at annual convention in Three Rivers, Que., on August 9, 1921.