Phossy Jaw and Match Eating

When I was young, I used to eat match heads. I don’t know why. Maybe I liked the sharp spark of burnt match against my tongue. Perhaps there was a vitamin deficiency somewhere in my diet that required charred wood. Whatever the reason, that memory is stuck inside my head. I still recall sneaking wooden matches out of the big box on the mantelpiece, striking them, and letting them burn. Then I’d blow them out and eat the little round tips from the ends. I flushed the match heads down the toilet so I wouldn’t get caught. Kids aren’t allowed to play with matches, or so they tell you. For me it wasn’t because I might burn the house down.

A woman suffering from “phossy jaw”

They used to make matches from phosphorous. This was outlawed, because it gave folks in the industry a malformation called “phossy jaw.” If you worked in a matchstick factory, you’d come home with a toothache one day, and then abscesses would form. Then–I’m not making this up–your jaw would eventually start to glow in the dark. Freaking. Glow. In the dark! It was so prevalent an occurrence, that before coal miner’s strikes, and before railroad grievances; before even the meatpackers began to complain about working conditions, politicians began to take note. By the 1890s, many European countries banned the sale of these matches.

Besides, they were poisonous. You only had to eat a few of them to die. It was a common way of making sure your suicide was complete. Eat a pack of matches and you’d die within a few days. Your liver would have giant gaping holes. That’s about all I have to say about matches except that, well, in the United States they were called locofocos. They burned bright and hot, and could burn the hell out of your fingers, or more.

So the next time I complain about my job, I should just point myself to the picture above and be glad–very glad–that I didn’t work for a match manufacturer in the 19th century.

Today strike-anywhere matches are made out of an inert white phosphorous head, mixed with sulphur, potassium and ground glass (the red parts), which is probably why I survived. Yummy stuff.

And this, kids, is why you don’t play with matches, and if you decide to go ahead and eat some matches anyway, this is why you don’t eat them. I was lucky I wasn’t alive during the 1800s, or I’d probably have been dead during the 1800s.

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