Tinder box

Making fire – producing a flame – is an essential part of human existence. Until 1826 when safety matches were first manufactured, tinder boxes held the most common means to make fire. Dry tinder, consisting of very dry plant material, moss, feathers and sheep wool, was stored inside the box with pieces of flint and steel. The box was usually stored close to the hearth, both to keep the tinder as dry as possible and for ease of access. The flint and steel were struck together to make a spark that hopefully would ignite the tinder and start the fire.

Storiel has four tinder boxes. This wooden one dating to the early 19th century became part of the museum’s collection at the end of the 19th century. It has two internal compartments and holds two flints and five shaped pieces of steel. The smaller bottom section is charred, showing it was used as a container to create the fire in. The back is engraved “ORV WX MDIV”.

Starting a fire like this is difficult and early chemists (alchemists) and inventors experimented with different chemicals and methods to replace the simple flint and steel method. In the 5th century AD the Chinese invented sulphur coated wooden sticks to use as an aid to start a fire, but they still needed a spark to ignite. Later attempts in Europe used highly inflammable chemicals that created dangerous noxious fumes. Finally in 1826 John Walker, an English chemist and druggist, discovered that a stick coated in chemicals ignited when he scraped it across his fireplace. He began to sell his ‘Friction Lights’ in his pharmacy in 1827. Adaptations by other inventors and industrialists followed and by the middle of the 19th century ‘safety matches’ were widely used. Today the ease of making fire is taken for granted.

This tinder box is on display in Gallery 4.