The Common Tinder-Box of Colonial Lays.


(St. James Lutheran Church, Chalfont Meeting, October 22, 1912.)

Early Lighting Picture
Here is a little tin box with a finger handle, and with a candle socket soldered upon its lid and a loose lid inside containing a piece of flint, a piece of steel, a scorched rag and several splints of wood tipped with sulphur, which is the apparatus for making fire used in our colonial ancestors in Bucks county and from time immemorial by all the so-called civilized people of the work. To make fire thus, four operations are necessary. You must make the spark, retain the spark, then produce the flame and retain the flame. Holding the circlet of steel vertically in your left hand you strike diagonally downward upon its outer edge with the flint so that a spark of percussion flies downward into the tinder, which is a scorched linen rag lying in the box beneath; the latter holds the spark as a smouldering ember, until you touch the spunk or sulphur-tipped splint upon it, whereupon with a little blowing the sulphur takes fire and you have a lighted match with which you light the candle set in the socket in the box lid. Perhaps this is not much to look at, but from a historic point of view it is a thing of such importance that it might be described as the master of human progress from prehistoric time down to 1835, or as visible proof of perhaps the greatest discovery that man ever made. What is steam; what is gunpowder or printing; what are electricity, railroads, airships, trolley cars, in comparison with this process which is at the bottom of everything? How, when and where did man first master fire, or how could he have lived here in the North Temperate Zone or in any part of the world where winter comes once a year, without fire? How can we help speculating upon such a subject as this? Can we suppose that he could have lived, therefore, in his infancy anywhere but in the tropics, or that under these circumstances he could have been a white man at the start, or anything but a sun-tanned black man, when living on uncooked food, in the tropical regions of the globe, he began his career without fire?

Early Lighting - The contents of a tinder box
The contents of a tinder box
But to return to the tinder-box and a consideration of its form, material and contents from an archeological point of view. The box is round, 4 inches in diameter and 2 inches high, with a circular tin handle for the forefinger. The inner loose lid not only smothers or quenches the smouldering tinder when the operation is over, but enables you to burn and smother a fresh rag from an already existing fire. Under this lid our ancestors kept the tinder, and lying upon it inside the box, the flint, steel and spunks. But the peculiar feature of the box, which is typical of a whole class of tinder-boxes in use in colonial America and England before the American Revolution, is a candle socket upon the lid, making of the apparatus a tinder-box and candlestick combined, which gave you a permanent, transportable light, that could be used for a variety of purposes before you lit the fire, otherwise, minus the candle, the tinder-box must have been close to the freshly laid fire and the flame communicated to the kindling with the lighted spunk, which is a match, but not a percussion match, before the latter went out. No doubt, the older tinder-boxes had no candlestick attachment, so that this, which is perhaps the last of the widely used tinder-boxes, is probably the most convenient.

Early Lighting - European wrought iron and brass tinder box dated 1734 with striker. Sold at Pook and Pook April 18, 2008
European wrought iron and brass tinder box dated 1734 with striker. Sold at Pook and Pook April 18, 2008
The next feature of interest is the fact that the box is made of tin, so-called, or properly speaking, tinned sheet-iron, or thin sheets of malleable iron dipped in molten tin. For this reason this box brings us to the antiquity and origin of this kind of metal together with that of the tinsmith or tinker and all articles made of tinned plate which must be determined by two facts: First, that though the ancients knew how to tin copper, as the Arabs have tinned this little vessel of beaten copper, the art of tinning iron is a comparatively modern discovery and was not known or practised in England upon thin iron plates at least, until about 1740. Before that time the tinning of sheet-iron was a great German secret and long remained so until a metallurgist named Andrew Yarriten, about 1690, went to Saxony and brought over the art to England. If, therefore, anyone has one of these ancestral tinder-boxes, which he can prove to have been in his family earlier than 1740, it must have come from Germany, or must have been made here from German-not English, tin plates.

Early Lighting - Four tinder boxes, 18th Century. Sold at Pook and Pook October 24-25, 2008
Four tinder boxes, 18th Century. Sold at Pook and Pook October 24-25, 2008
Another point is that all the old sheet-iron, whether tinned or not, before about 1728, was hammered with heavy water-run hammers. Before that time, according to that masterpiece of economic archeology known as "Beckman's History of Inventions," in which the learned John Beckman, professor of economy at Gottingen, about 1790, with a style which might be described as a combination of Gibbon and Dumas, tells us that they could roll iron in small strips, or roll it smooth after hammering it, but could not squeeze out flat sheets of it hot or cold between rollers as now. Hence, again, if you have one of these tinder-boxes which appear to be hammered rather than rolled, you may know that it is older than 1730, like this small tin box used by one of my ancestors in 1705 to hold a land-patent seal.

The same tests may be applied to all the old colonial lanterns, coffeepots, knife-boxes, candlesticks, tin kitchens, and in particular to the perforated glassless, cone-roofed tin lanterns, which in New England, dealers and bric-a-brac hunters have foolishly named after Paul Revere, but one of which made of sheet-iron two or three hundred years before he was born, is now in the Norwegian National Museum at Christiania.

All these articles, including the painted or lacquered Japanned ware of colonial times, which according to Swank's" History of Iron in all Ages," 1892 edition, was produced almost immediately after 1740 upon the discovery of the previously unknown process of rolling out sheet-iron can be more or less dated in this way. Many of them if rolled and tinned or japanned, are English, and not older than 1750, but if hammered and tinned are probably German, and might be a hundred years older, but if hammered and not tinned, or made of plain sheet-iron might date back into the sixteenth century or even earlier like the lantern at Christiania.

Early Lighting Picture
As distinguished from the ancient fire-making process by the rubbing of wood, common to most of the wild men of the world, this method of our ancestors was the ancestral process of all the so-called civilized nations of to-day. Somewhere in prehistoric times, probably in the iron age, they learned how to make steel, but before that in place of steel they used a hard, crystallized compound of iron called pyrites, which is proved by the finding of a piece of pyrites, probably so used, according to Dawkins "Early Man in Britain," page 210, in an ancient British barrow of the Bronze Age, at Lambourne, Berkshire, England. The National Museum at Washington has apparatus consisting of pyrites and flint, as used by Indians and Eskimos in Northern British America, and it appears that some of the Eskimo, according to Hough, "Fire-Making Apparatus in National Museum." N. M., report, 1888, used two pieces of pyrites minus the flint, sometimes rubbed in native sulphur, with eagles' feathers for tinder. Thus, before the invention of steel, pyrites took the place of steel. But the process is the same. In one of these tinder-boxes we have a piece of jasper, which is the American equivalent of the European flint, and which appears as a concretion crystallized out of the silicon in the bodies of marine insects, in the form of lumps or strata in limestone, as flint does in chalk. Sometimes our ancestors used Indian arrowheads in these tinder-boxes, as on their flint-lock guns, to thus strike fire, but in most of the boxes, as here, we have European flints, abundantly imported from England, Germany and France 150 years ago, and sold for these purposes. Judging by what I saw at Mr. Snares' flint mine at Brandon, Suffolk, England, in 1892, where they were still quarrying, "quartering," or breaking up the lumps, and "knapping," or flaking with steel hammers, the flint, and exporting it to Grand Bassam, Old Calabar, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Colombo, Little Popo and twenty-three other ports on the coasts of Africa and Asia, to be used by barbarous people who still used the flint guns, (a set of which I here show.) These tinder-box pieces with the exception of the jasper, are all gun flints and not specially made as tinder-flints.

Colonel Paxson found in an old Philadelphia store a few years ago several original, unopened and superannuated packages of these gun-flints, at the same time that he met an old tinsmith, who in his youth in Philadelphia had made tinder-boxes. But as Mr. Snares' card shows, the proper tinder-flint was larger than a gun-flint, and not square, but round. Moreover, Snares' flints are black. These here are golden yellow and were probably made in France.

Snares' men had burrowed 40 feet vertically underground through three layers of flint, about 7 feet apart in the chalk, called "upper crust," "wall" and "floor," and I saw and photographed one of the miners who had just brought up on his head, a bundle of flint nodules without a windlass and by way of a set of primitive ladders and stagings. There is no time to describe this interesting survival of an ancient industry, which is situated within the area of a still older lot of diggings, close by, at a place called Grimes' Graves, where the ground has been disturbed to a great depth for several acres, by ancient British people of the Chipped Stone Age, who mined flint there for their stone implements. Just so they mined it at Cissbury in Sussex or at Speiennes in Belgium, and so our Indians mined jasper at Durham, near here, or at Macungie and Vera Cruz in Lehigh county.

Early Lighting - Detail of the altarpiece of the Saint Georges church in Haguenau, Bas-Rhin, France. Photo  taken by Pethrus. Note Joseph with flint, steel, and tinder. Painting done by Diebold Martin in the 15th century.
Detail of the altarpiece of the Saint Georges church in Haguenau, Bas-Rhin, France. Photo taken by Pethrus. Note Joseph with flint, steel, and tinder. Painting done by Diebold Martin in the 15th century.
The steel circlet, or flourish, regardless of its shape, is as old as the Bible or ancient Egypt. It goes back to the time when our ancestors abandoned pyrites, and found in the manufacture of their wrought iron, in little charcoal furnaces, heated with bellows made of inflated animal skins, and hollow reeds (and at a time long before they had learned how to melt or cast iron, which is a modern invention of about 1450.) that a little more charcoal in the heated ore turned it into hard, elastic steel, which can be hardened still farther by dipping it hot into water or grease. All this happened long before America was discovered, but as far as these steel circlets are concerned in Bucks county, there was plenty of American steel made after 1727 at Durham furnace, and our blacksmiths could hammer it out in the form of these old English flourishes, or these circlets shown, sometimes with a slight ornamental curve at the tips, and temper it to suit themselves.


After you make the spark, as explained, you must retain it or out it goes. You must throw it into tinder and allow it to smoulder there. Tinder among our ancestors in colonial times, was generally an old piece of cotton or linen rag, a worn out handkerchief for instance, thrown on the kitchen fire till it blazed, stamped out on the hearth and then placed in the box or, on the other hand, fired and smothered in the box with the inner lid. The archeology of tinder itself is a vast subject. The savage people of the world having used a great and various multitude of tinders made of bird feathers, fungi, decayed wood, vegetable fiber and other things. But the tinder, here in question, might be called a civilized tinder, and though there were at that time in use in Europe and here by civilized people several other tinders, as for instance dried, rotten wood, or touchwood, or the dried fungus Polyporus igniarius, soaked in nitre, and sometimes called by the French name Amadou, or the so-called German tinder, a sort of inflammable, manufactured felt, and various slow-matches inherited from the middle ages, which may or may not have been older than the scorched rag, or known to the ancients, there is little doubt that the rag tinder here shown was more frequently used by our great-great-grandfathers than anything else.


A glowing ember, or smouldering spark, is not a fire. Thus far you have only retained the ember, next you must transform it to flame or the whole operation fails.

When our ancestors did this by touching the sulphur-tipped splint, which might be called a match, as explained, to the ember, they were much in advance of primitive man, who had to blow up the flame on fuel laid against the tinder itself. The ancients had sulphur, which is one of the elements of the world, and can be found native all over the globe, especially near volcanoes, and the Mackenzie River Indians knew how inflammable sulphur was, and, according to Hough, above quoted, rubbed it on two pieces of pyrites when they clashed them together to make fire. But the idea of melting sulphur and tipping it on splints of wood, if not known to the Romans, probably dates back into the Middle Ages, as proved by specimens of similar "spunks" of considerable antiquity, or far older at least than the settlement of Pennsylvania, seen by Colonel Paxson in the museum at Berlin.

At all events, here in the midst of the tinder-box process, is the ancestor of the percussion match, which although it would not strike, yet carried a flame and was not, therefore, a slow-match, such as the old musketeers carried around smouldering in metal boxes in the 17th century, or such as were attached to the old match-lock guns, or as are used to-day to set off dynamite.


The last step in the operation after producing the fire is to retain it, which in this case you do in the flame of a candle. The latter whether molded or dipped, of wax or fat, is of immense antiquity, and need not be described here. When the fire-maker held the burning "spunk" in his hand he might transfer the flame direct to the kindling on the hearth, or he might light the candle with it before he lit the hearth fire, and because the "spunk" was far less apt to go out in the latter operation, than in the former, he probably lit the candle first. When that burned he was master of the house on a cold morning when all the fires were out, but that he used paper tapers to transfer the fire from these tinder-box candles, or to other candles, or to light the fire itself, the narratives of old people, and family traditions abundantly prove. Besides which we know that tinder-boxes are far rarer in the rubbish of old houses than we might suppose they would be, ten times rarer for instance, than spinning-wheels, showing that where a man lived in town, or near neighbors in the country, he could and continually did keep live embers in the great ash bed of the kitchen hearth, or where these failed, begged a pot or shovelful of fresh brands from his neighbor, or lit his candle with paper tapers, from the kitchen fire, without using the tinder-box at all.

In "Home-life in Colonial Days." by Miss A. M. Earle, a book containing valuable illustrations, and many interesting notes, but rendered almost useless by the negligence of the writer to quote authorities, the author says she never could produce fire with a tinder-box, and that Charles Dickens complained of spending half-an-hour at the operation. This was probably because she tried to strike with the steel rather than with the flint, or because the steel was not tempered, or the tinder was damp. Provided the tools are in good condition there is no difficulty in the operation.

The invention of the percussion match superseded the tinder-box in 1835, but did not abolish it. Here is a brand-new Whaler's tinder-box which I bought at a store in New Bedford in 1907, and it and another like it, packed in the provision basket in the whaleboat outfit at our Historical Society Museum, prove that when the whaler leaves the whale-ship armed with his harpoon, in an open boat upon the most dangerous fish hunt in the world, he dares not trust his life to a match, which may spoil, but he risks it on the flint and steel, for the spark is always there.

We still have the smoker's "strike-a-light," and another lot of tinder-boxes sold by John Kreider the gunsmith, in Philadelphia, as Colonel Paxson recently found, show that the wise hunter in the American Wilds, or the lonely fur-trader of the far northwest, when it comes to the point of life and death, now still in the year 1912 will not trust a match, but falls back on the primeval spark. Source: Text by Henry C. Mercer

Comments (0)Don't be shy, tell us what you think!   
Colonial Sense is an advocate for global consumer privacy rights, protection and security.
All material on this website © copyright 2009-19 by Colonial Sense, except where otherwise indicated.