Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Death in the match-box

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The man who invented lucifer matches was doubtless one of the greatest benefactors to humanity. What labour was lost, what tempers were tried, what knuckles were made sore in the hundred thousand households of England, every morning, as Betty the housemaid, with flint and steel, endeavoured to strike a light on the damp tinder; what a minor misery of life was abolished by the immortal genius who schemed, and made, and struck a light with, the first Congreve! The invention might have been a very small one, but how stupendous its results appear, multiplied by the daily convenience it affords to the entire population! Prometheus stole fire from heaven only to animate one man. The inventor of the lucifer match calls into life one of the four elements to do our bidding in our domestic and industrial homes every day, and yet even his name is unknown to the public. But all great and universal inventions are sure to have their dark as well as their bright sides, and after the twenty-five years’ experience we have had, since the first blue spirt of light was elicited by the sand-paper, medical men have come to the knowledge that the manufacturing of them has created a new and terrible disease among the workers.

It was observed many years ago in Vienna, the great seat of the lucifer-match trade, that, after a while, a certain percentage of the workmen, in some mysterious manner, became affected with necrosis of the jaw: the bone in which the teeth are embedded gradually sloughed away, and the patient, in many cases, died from the constitutional effect of some poison absorbed into the system. After awhile the mischief was traced to the phosphorus used in preparing the match, and the handicraft got such an ill name that, in some places of Germany, only convicts were allowed to be employed at the work. It was, after some investigation, found that the disease attacked the bone through decayed teeth, and that in all cases it was necessary that the bone should be laid bare ere the phosphorus could attack it. A German physician settled this point by exposing a rabbit, whose jaw had been accidently broken and denuded of its surrounding tissues, to the fumes of phosphorus; the rabbit’s jaw exfoliated, and it ultimately died. It seems very extraordinary, on first sight, that phosphorus, which forms so important an element of all bones, and from which it is extracted, should be so destructive to its life when coming in contact with it, but the physiological explanation of the seeming anomaly is this: the fumes of the phosphorus destroy the periosteum, or the vascular lining of all living bone, and by which it is nourished. This being destroyed, the bone simply perishes through want of support. Until latterly we have not heard much of this terrible disease, but its alleged frequency in the lucifer-match manufactories of England has led the officers of health of the Privy Council to order an investigation into the matter; and Dr. Bristowe has written a report, which we trust will lead to some investigation of the evil.

From the evidence he has collected, out of fifty-nine patients who suffered from the disease, thirty-six were dippers, mixers, and grinders,—three operations in match-making which took the workers into the drying-rooms, where the lucifers in the process of desiccation give off phosphoric fumes,—of these fifty-nine patients no less than twenty-one died, and the others were more or less disfigured by the partial or total obliteration of either the upper or lower jaw, or, in some cases, of both; whilst the poor sufferers, in many cases, were not thoroughly restored to health for years. It is certainly very deplorable that we cannot strike a match without being reminded that its production entails such misery and death to the producer; and we feel confident that the humane public will be very willing to adopt any plan which may abolish it entirely. The object of the Government inquiry is to see what precautions can be taken to prevent this horrible jaw-rotting, and many suggestions have been made. For instance, it is proposed by Dr. Bristowe that the workmen shall keep their mouths shut whilst at work, and in this manner prevent the phosphoric fumes from entering; the wearing of respirators is suggested by Dr. Salter; but those who know how reckless workmen are, and, even when their own lives are concerned, cannot be induced to adopt such precautions, put little faith in such expedients. In the dry-grinding of steel forks at Sheffield, perhaps the most deadly trade in existence, such respirators were once introduced, but the men would not wear them; and in the many preparations of arsenical pigments, which are so destructive, the like disregard of all precaution is noticeable among the workers. In Prussia, the Government, to a certain extent, provides against the danger, by prohibiting any person who has hollow teeth from working in the lucifer-match manufactories; but all these operations are only partially operative—the grand object is to get rid of the preparation of phosphorus, altogether which brings about such deplorable results; and this, we are glad to say, can be done.

At present the vast majority of matches are made of common phosphorus, a highly inflammable material, independently of its disease-producing tendencies. Of these matches some contain very much more phosphorus than others. The common “Congreves” are called “damp proof” matches, in which a comparatively small percentage of phosphorus is used, and silent matches. These latter are by many persons much preferred for domestic use, in consequence of their not spluttering when lighted, and from their being less sulphurous; but they contain the largest percentage of phosphorus, and consequently their production produces the largest amount of disease. But there is another kind of match made with what is termed red or amorphous phosphorus. This singular substance has not very long been discovered: it is nothing more than common phosphorus enclosed in a cylindrical iron vessel, and exposed continuously for a month or six weeks to a temperature of from 400° to 500°. By this simple baking it becomes changed entirely in all its qualities, the most notable of which is its ignitability under any temperature less than 500°. Attempts have been made to produce matches by the mixture of this amorphous phosphorus with chlorate of potass, but the process of mixing these two materials is so dangerous that the manufacture has been given up. There is an old adage, however, that there are more ways of killing a dog than drowning him, and we are glad to see that amorphous phosphorus and chlorate of potass have been at length brought together in a very effectual manner, and, what is more to the purpose, with entire impunity to the match-maker from his old disease. Messrs. Bryant and May have solved the difficulty in their patent safety matches. The peculiarity of these consists in the fact that the match can only be struck by rubbing it on the prepared surface—friction alone not being sufficient. The match is dipped in chlorate of potass (its chief ingredient), mixed with red lead, black oxide of manganese, sulphuret of antimony, and glue; whilst the box, in lieu of sand-paper, is smeared with amorphous phosphorus, sulphuret of antimony, and glue. Thus, without the box the match is worthless. There are certain inconveniences attending this divorce, but the advantages are, on the other hand, very great. The accidents that happen to ordinary lucifer matches, in consequence of their spontaneous combustion in hot weather, is a well-recognised cause of many disastrous conflagrations.

We have ourselves heard the late Mr. Braidwood deplore the immense loss of property brought about by this cause. Again, the very slight amount of friction required to light them is another cause of fires; even mice and rats gnawing wax vestas have been known to fire the match by their teeth touching the phosphorus. Accidents to life are continually taking place through ladies treading accidentally on matches carelessly thrown upon the ground.

Lucifer matches are a well-known cause of fires, both accidental and incendiary, in the agricultural districts. The matches which the boy keeping birds always keeps about him, are often used to fire a stack. The labourer threshing in the barn, or working in the stable, will often pull out a congreve, and by accident let one fall; something crushing it, and a fire happens in a moment. So well are some fire-offices aware of their losses from this cause, that in their policies they insert a clause prohibiting the carrying of lucifer matches by farm-servants. The general use of the new kind of match would at once do away with all fear of accidental fires arising from their use. At all events, Dr. Bristowe acknowledges that the only effectual method of preventing the deplorable disease under which the match-maker now suffers is the prohibition of the use of common phosphorus altogether, and we think that, if the legislature does not adopt this precaution, society should; as it is nothing less than criminal to persist in the use of an article which causes such misery, when a perfectly harmless method of manufacture is in full operation, without causing the slightest derangement of health to the workers in it.

A. W.