Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Bryant & May, Croydon

Together with Gillette and Hovis, Bryant & May may well have been one of the most prolific companies when it came to covering Britain's walls with painted signs. Yet not all of them are as colourful as this one for Swan Vestas matches.

The Swan brand emerged in 1883, when Collard & Kendall of Bootle, near Liverpool, launched the "Swan Wax Matches". After a few years the company was bought by US-based Diamond Match Company and in the mid-1890s they launched the "Swan White Pine Vestas" ("Vestas" derives from Vesta, the Roman goddess of household and fire). These matches appealed especially to smokers as a wooden stick burnt better in the open air than the cotton or paper dipped in wax sticks that were more commonly used at the time. In the early 1900s the Diamond Match Company merged with Bryant & May. The British match maker kept the brand but redesigned the label of the matchbox: the white swan peacefully gliding on a pond with rushes in the background, that had adorned matchboxes from the very beginning, was turned, given a green background and moved to the left, leaving a field on the left where the brand's name could be displayed in yellow letters against a red background. This basic concept has not changed since then. A couple of years after the merger, "White Pine" was dropped from the name and the mention "The Smoker's Match" was added (it disappeared in the 1980s). Obviously as decades passed a few changes were made to the design of the label: the swan, in particular its wings, acquired a more simplified outline, and so did the background, before completely disappearing (although in the 1980s, a background of foliage was introduced, which was then replaced for a short while by the Houses of Parliament at night. Actually the image was quite sinister, the absence of light on Big Ben bringing back memories of the Blitz...). The most significant change took place in 1959 when the swan changed direction, gliding no longer towards the left but towards the right, as it did originally. In the 1990s the label changed radically but that led to such a drop in sales that the manufacturer returned to the original concept, with a much more stylized swan though.

Looking at the different models of matchboxes, it appears that the painted sign below dates from the 1950s. Indeed the swan faces left and prior to 1950 the mention "British Made" did not appear on the front of the boxes, under the swan.

Smoker's Match
British Made By Bryant & May

This sign is remarkably preserved and was undoubtedly almost entirely hidden for quite some time by a hoarding. Only the part on the left has faded because of its exposure to the elements. Still, since it faces south, the colours have been washed out a bit by the sun: originally the orange on the box would have been a bright red, and the green would have been darker. A fantastic sign nonethless!

Location: London Road / Both pictures taken on: 17/06/2008

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