Last year, I confessed to being a hodophile (which is just a fancy word for someone who loves to travel).
Now I’m admitting to being a phillumenist.
If you don’t know what a phillumenist is, don’t worry — I didn’t even know it myself until yesterday, when I came across the word in a trivia quiz.
A phillumenist is someone who, naturally enough, engages in phillumeny: namely, collecting souvenir matchbook covers and match boxes. The word was coined in 1943 , derived from the Latin “lumen” for light, “philo” for loving, and “ist” for one who does something.
It’s apparently a particularly popular hobby in the UK, though major collectors are scattered across the globe.
My own collection dates from my childhood, and, truth to tell, I haven’t really practiced much phillumeny since the 1980s; my interest waned, and labeled matchbooks are also less ubiquitous these days, having fallen out of favor along with smoking.
But I’ve hung on to my aging matchbooks and matchboxes largely because they remind me of past travels — of hotels and motels, restaurants and bars, cruises and countries — even if I barely remember some of them, especially from my youth.
The Raffles Caper
The prize of my collection has to be the classy little green-and-white matchbox from Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, perhaps the world’s most storied colonial-era hotel.
Along with the hotel’s signature traveler’s palm, the front of the matchbox depicts a famous quote from the writer W. Somerset Maugham: “Raffles stands for all the fables of the exotic East.”
I “collected” it while on a tour of the hotel way back in 1982, when I was a budding travel writer and still an active phillumenist. As the Raffles general manager showed off a double room, I spotted the distinctive matchbox neatly resting in an ashtray next to the bed.
I knew I had to have it. Waiting my chance, I furtively reached for it when the GM temporarily turned around, but fumbled the maneuver and was caught in the act. “Nice matchbox,” I managed to blurt, returning it to the ashtray under his icy glare.
But as we left the room, I lingered behind a bit and committed full-on phillumeny. The matchbox disappeared into my pocket and later into the shoe box that now rests in my closet.
I suspect that to this day there’s a picture of me hanging at the Raffles with a warning: “Do not admit — phillumenist!”
Combing Through the Shoe Box
I now pull the shoe box out from time to time to reminisce over mostly long-gone places that are memorialized on such matchbooks as:
- The Bridgetown Motor Hotel in Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia (“The motel with the country inn atmosphere!”). There’s also an insignia inscribed “International Gathering of the Clans, 1983.” While I didn’t attend the Clan gathering, it brings back nice memories of traveling in Scotland (and Nova Scotia).
- A bright red matchbook labeled “Confucius,” apparently a Chinese restaurant at the Abbey Victoria Hotel on 7th Avenue and 51st in New York City. Alas, the hotel (and Confucius) were demolished in 1982, after it became known as “Shabby Abbey.”
- A matchbox from the Trattoria Antellesi on Via Faenza in Florence, Italy. I had dinner there on two separate trips and loved their steak Florentine; near the Medici Chapels, it’s my favorite restaurant in Florence. The matchbox reads, in part, “Chiuso la Domenica”: closed on Sunday, so take heed.
- A blue-and-white matchbook from Taverna The Greek Islands in Washington, D.C., which displays a confusing map but no other address information other than that it’s “within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol.” This was the Greek restaurant I took my future wife, Catharine, to on our second date. When Catharine suggested we get the feta cheese appetizer, I had to sheepishly admit I wasn’t carrying enough cash (all of $10, which seemed like a lot back in the early ’70s), and it was barely enough for the entrees. Despite this embarrassment, she still married me.
- A golden-brown-colored matchbook for the Gold Hill Inn of Gold Hill, Colorado, touting it as “The home of Casey’s Table d’hote.” This presumably dates from a cross-country car trip my family took when I was age 10, and, while Casey’s Table d’hote didn’t make a lasting impression, I’m sure we enjoyed it.
- A well-aged light-blue-and-white matchbook cover from the Hotel Ebel in Frankfurt, Germany, which I like because even I can understand its German phrase, “Das Familienhotel Nähe Hauptbahnhof;” traveling by train in 1970s Europe, I always found lodging near the railway stations.
- A blue-and-green matchbox from the now-defunct American Hawaii Cruises, which, although 20 years old, was one of my last acquisitions. Besides offering a nice cruise through the islands, our week was also notable because the older couple we shared a table with called us “kids” — definitely the last time that’s happened.
- A red-and-white matchbook cover from Mary’s Fried Chicken at the corner of Millwood and Maple in Columbia, South Carolina. While it touted “Mary’s 3 in One,” it doesn’t specify what that is — but I definitely would have ordered it back in the day.
There are hundreds more like these, each telling it’s own little story. I just didn’t know until yesterday that enough other people collect these things to merit its own word — phillumeny — even if it does sound like something you could go to jail for in less enlightened times and climes.
Such as Singapore, 1982?
NOTE: For the 51st anniversary of Woodstock, you may want to check out my post from one year ago, 50 Years Ago, I Left Woodstock.
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