A Historic Exhibition in a Surprising Space

Photography by Daniel Smyth

“I started collecting them about 35 years ago,” says Bill Evans, a resident at Madonna Manor. He can’t possibly be referring to anything other than the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of framed matchbooks displayed on every surface of his apartment at the assisted living facility. The frames – titled, themed and meticulously put together – sit everywhere: the floor; the couch; the bed; the kitchen counters. It’s 35 years worth of collecting and searching, and there’s more history in this one apartment than in some museums. 

It started when Evans’ hobby was restoring classic cars. A box of car parts purchased at an auction provided him with a new hobby – all because of a shoebox tucked in with the haul. 

“I was buying some spare parts for an old 1931 mail truck I was restoring, and I found the shoebox in with the parts,” says Evans. “It was full of matchbooks, with the matches still intact. I put it away in a closet and forgot about it for years, until I saw an ad in a magazine for a manufacturer in New York who sold albums for collecting matchbooks.” 

Evans and his wife lived in New York at the time, so he visited the manufacturer, purchased an album and dusted off the old shoebox in the back of a closet. 

Now, the Madonna Manor resident and his wife live in one of the Northern Kentucky facility’s assisted living apartments. And when Madonna Manor announced the opening of a new community center, scheduled to be completed in December, Evans learned there would be a gallery for artwork. He immediately volunteered his extensive collection to populate the walls when the center opens. 

The frames range in size from very small to poster-sized, and contain a range of diverse subject matter. One of the oldest books, from the Hotel Havlin in Cincinnati, is framed with a postcard from the building marked 1905-1909. 

He picks up an old box, decorated on the outside, and opens it to show it contains original wooden matches. “These are one of the oldest things that ties into the collection,” he says. “It’s a box from the Diamond Match Company, from somewhere around the late 1800s, I’d guess.”

Then there’s the frame displaying a matchbook and custom-etched Zippo lighter from the USS Hollister, a destroyer from World War II – given to him by an individual who personally worked aboard the ship during the war. 

“In World War II, some ships had their own matchbook covers, but not many had their own special Zippo lighters,” says Evans. 

In a box are matchsafes – boxes with their own strikers that would hold a larger quantity of matches – from all over the country, spanning more than 100 years of history. One of the boxes, with imagery associated with World War I printed on it, features a photograph of a soldier – a one-of-a-kind find for Evans. 

Traveling through the apartment, pausing at nearly every frame, Evans recounts the stories associated with the matchbooks – an item once mundane and typical becoming a work of art, a hobby and a representation of history. Each frame has a story, both about how he acquired the books and what they represent, or why their subject matter was significant. From celebrity books with smiling portraits on them to the 1944 matchbooks given to natives after the retreat of Douglas MacArthur’s troops from the Philippines, each emblazoned with the famous slogan, “I shall return.” 

“Matchbooks are something people saved,” says Evans. “In the 1930s, they were the cheapest method of advertising, because everyone was smoking. And people saved them as a souvenir from vacations, trips, hotels they stayed in, shows they saw, everything. A lot of these have surfaced over the years, and collectors have gone after them.” 

Evans is such a collector, always keeping his eye out for a new book he doesn’t have, and always watching the auction lists for local matchbook collectors’ clubs. Each club tends to have a monthly or bi-monthly auction at their meetings. Evans is a member of the Tri-State Match Cover Club, though he always keeps an eye on other clubs across the country for rare finds and new books. 

When Madonna Manor’s community center opens, Evans’ collection, alongside art from other artists’ work, will grace the walks of the gallery for all to stroll through and see. It’s an impressive collection of history – both Cincinnati’s and the United States’. There’s something for everyone to enjoy in the collection, including original Big Little Books with their counterpart matchbooks. 

“Collectors are always looking for potential combos, which are other items from the era related to the matchbook,” says Evans, pointing out a framed, original 1932 Olympic Games program and ticket alongside the matching matchbook. 

The collection is extensive, lovingly curated and certainly worth seeing by Madonna Manor residents and Greater Cincinnati history buffs.

Madonna Manor, A Franciscan Living Community, is located at 2344 Amsterdam Road Villa Hills, KY 41017. You can reach them at 859.426.6400, by email at info@madonnamanor.org or visit their website at HomeIsHere.org.