Andrew Selth discusses how matchbox labels provide a glimpse into the culture of colonial Burma.

In the not so distant past, the worlds of the academic and the private collector rarely coincided, at least not publicly. Collectibles, that is objects considered of interest or value to a collector, were usually seen as insignificant, both in themselves and in formal research terms. However, this picture is gradually changing.

Greater attention is now being paid to popular culture as a source of data and insights into specific historical periods. Ephemera such as old sheet music, postage stamps, trading cards, theatrical posters and even certain household items are being recognised as important cultural artefacts that not only reflected beliefs and social trends, including views of foreign countries, but in some cases influenced public perceptions themselves.

Take, for example, various collectibles dating from Burma’s colonial era (1824-1948). Old songs and sheet music conveyed powerful images of golden pagodas, swaying palm trees and demure women. Cigarette cards depicting picturesque ‘native’ villages and colourful ‘hill tribes’ made a deep impression in the West, particularly among children. Then, as now, postage stamps reflected aspects of Burma’s politics, history and society.

One field which has so far escaped scholarly attention, perhaps because it has not been a mainstream interest like philately, is phillumeny, or the hobby of collecting match-related items and other tobacciana. Yet, here too, there are opportunities to learn about Burma. Not only do the design, production and use of matchbox labels provide a glimpse into the culture of colonial Burma, but they also shed light on its economy and foreign contacts.


Although the term only dates from 1943, phillumeny as a pastime is more than 100 years old. It originated in the late 19th century when friction matches (which were invented in 1827) became widely available in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. The hobby was particularly popular between 1960 and 1990 and is currently experiencing a resurgence, probably due to the ability of enthusiasts to communicate via the Internet.

In colonial Burma, what one observer called ‘the well-nigh universal use of the cheroot’ made the availability of matches a major social issue. Pipe smoking also had a long history, including among the ethnic minorities. Before Britain’s annexation of Upper Burma in 1886, safety matches were shipped from Lower Burma to meet the demand in the north for ‘petty luxuries’. They soon reached the remotest parts of the country.

At first, matches were imported into Burma, mainly from Britain, Sweden and Japan. In 1901, this cost the province 50,000 pounds sterling (Burma did not become a colony in its own right until 1937). The introduction of new customs duties by the government of British India in 1924, however, and their more efficient enforcement by the colonial administration in Burma, encouraged the expansion of the local match industry.

During the 1920s, there were five match factories in Burma. They were at Pazundaung, Kemmendine (both then on the outskirts of Rangoon), Kanaung (across the river from Thilawa), Akyab and Mandalay. The Pazundaung plant was the largest of its kind in Asia. Built in 1922 by an Indian, Adamjee Haji Dawood, it imported modern machinery from Germany and Japan and employed 1,400 of the country’s 2,100 match workers. Unusually, for the time, most of them were Burmese women.

The only other factory of any size was the one at Kanaung, acquired by the Burma Match Company (BMC) from the Sino-Burmese magnate Lim Chin Tsong in 1925. At first, it employed 300 workers, but by 1929 this number had doubled. The BMC also owned a small mill in Mandalay, which employed 200 workers. Part of a global conglomerate based in Sweden, the BMC sought to divide the local market with Dawood. However, negotiations broke down, resulting in a bitter trade war which lasted several years.

During the Second World War, the lack of chemicals, transport and machinery, and the destruction of the Mandalay mill, led to a drastic shortage of matches in Burma. The Japanese built a factory in Shan State but the problem persisted. This led to a flourishing trade in simple flint lighters, made in homes and small workshops. Rangoon, Moulmein and Pyawbwe became centres of the lighter industry. Also, some matches were made by hand, mainly in Pegu, Bassein, Monywa and Insein.

Mechanical lighters had been produced in small quantities before the war, but an excise duty, probably imposed at the request of the match companies, had restricted the industry’s growth. After the war, lighter production was discouraged (some sources say banned) by the British, who feared they would undercut revenues from a new match tax. The 1946 Burma Finance Act increased excise duty on local matches by 100%. The same year, a local factory was encouraged to restart match production to help meet the demand.

The matches produced in Burma were for both local and overseas markets. Exports in 1940-41 (largely from the Dawood mill) amounted to over 2.5 million gross of boxes, valued at US$708,000. Apart from petroleum products, they were the only commodity exported from Burma in finished form. Oddly, at the same time matches were imported, mainly from Sweden, India and Japan. This ensured that there was a wide range of products available in Burma, sold under many different brand names.

Burmese matchbox labels can be divided into several categories. Many depicted mythical creatures, such as chinthes (leogryphs) and three-headed elephants, or figures in Burmese folklore, such as nats (spirits). Others carried images of historical figures, such as the legendary general Mahabandoola. Animals, such as tigers, monkeys, bears and even cows were popular, both as brand names and as illustrations on labels. Peacocks (Burma’s national symbol) and rice boats were also common devices. Some of the better designs were copied by rival firms.

Adamjee Haji Dawood’s factory produced matches under about two dozen brand names. Their labels covered a wide spectrum of subjects, including animals, birds, household implements and musical instruments. For example, Scissor and Violin brand matches enjoyed good sales. Polo brand matches too were popular. Some labels even depicted scenes in India. Dawood also imported Torpedo Boat brand matches from Japan, their label doubtless a reference to the Japanese navy’s defeat of the Russian fleet in 1904.

The BMC clearly benefited from the superior resources and technology of its parent company, resulting in labels of a higher quality than those produced locally. The images were better defined and the colours much brighter. In many cases they were designed and printed in Sweden, and then shipped to Burma. They deliberately catered to local sentiment, by drawing on Burmese traditions and depicting local cultural icons. Mandalay matches, for example, were recognisable by the chinthe on their labels.

Nor did manufacturers shy away from purely religious iconography. For example, the Moslim Match Factory (sic), makers of ‘Winthanu’ matches, produced a brand featuring — of all things — a Buddhist pongyi (monk). Another label showed a monk’s distinctive umbrella. A brand of matches made in India specifically for the Burmese market even depicted the Buddha. These illustrations did not seem to offend anyone. On the contrary, they were designed to appeal directly to the dominant religious community in Burma.

Reflecting the colony’s mixed race population, most matchbox labels were written in both English and Burmese, but many were just in English. Others were printed in Burmese only, even when produced by foreign companies. A few, produced locally by the Eastern Asiatic Match Company, had labels printed in English and Chinese. Some matchboxes imported from Japan also had Chinese characters on the label, as well as the customary English. Almost all products stated that they were ‘Made in Burma’.

Taken together, these products demonstrated the multi-faceted nature of colonial Burma. Matches were made in factories operated by Swedish, Indian, Burmese and Chinese interests. Others were imported from Europe, Japan and India. Matchbox labels reflected a mix of Western and Eastern motifs, covering everything from household implements to religious figures. Many adopted designs similar to those seen in other parts of the world but quite a number, such as those depicting mythical creatures, were unique to Burma.

The production of matches in Burma before 1948 can also be seen as a snapshot of the colony’s economic development, with foreign imports gradually being replaced by locally manufactured goods. Also, the competition between local entrepreneurs and overseas interests revealed the biases of the British colonial administration, which tended to give preferential treatment to large companies over smaller businesses. Matches were also seen as a profitable source of tax revenue by the cash-strapped colonial authorities.

These are all subjects worthy of serious study, but they have one other thing in common. In addition to conventional avenues of academic research and analysis, they can be approached through the collection, consideration and appreciation of the millions of small, colourful pieces of paper that adorned matchboxes in Burma over 100 years ago.

Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and the Coral Bell School, Australian National University.

Andrew also recently wrote for the Nikkei Asian Review about colonial Burma and collectible cards, and raised a number of shared concerns about the sources of popular perceptions during that era.