Whatever the circumstances, several properties of matches sprang to the forefront while learning to light them. First, considerable attention had to be given to the amount of pressure applied to the match head as it was dragged down the length of the abrasive striking surface. Insufficient pressure would not allow enough friction heat to be generated to spark the combustion of the sulfurous substance on the match head. Too much pressure might break the body of the match. This would result in a flaming match fragment launching into an uncontrolled spin. When it landed it could easily leave an unwanted burn mark. Or worse it could land in a pile of tinder and ignite a fire in an undesirable place.
Matches came in two styles. One had a shaft made of a small sliver of wood. The other had a shaft made from paper. Wooden matches came in a small box that made a nice container for small items once the matches were used. Paper matches came joined together in two segments that were attached by a small metal staple. Each segment held about ten matches that were separate from each other except at the stapled end where the cuts that separated them did not penetrate. When you needed a match, you pinched it between two fingers and with a sideways pulling motion pulled it apart from the rest of the book held tightly with the other hand.
Paper matches required much more manual dexterity than wooden matches. It took great skill to separate the match from its book without tearing the book apart or separating it from its cover. Without careful attention, separating a match from its pack could result in three detached pieces; the match you separated, other matches still joined by a staple, and the cover with the abrasive striking surface. Once successful at separating a match from its cover, the next part requiring digital acuity involved striking the match. Missteps here could result either in failure to light the match or sometimes burned fingers.
Unlike wooden matches, paper ones did not have a rigid shaft. When striking a wooden match it was possible to hold it with your fingers at the far end of the match head which would burst into flame when struck. Perhaps that was why boxes of wooden matches were often labeled “Safety Matches.” On the other hand paper matches required the placing of one finger directly on or at least very near the head when striking it. Otherwise not enough pressure could be applied to the head to generate the friction necessary to cause combustion. Because of this necessity to place at least one finger near the combusting surface, it required certain quickness in order to remove the finger at the slightest indication that combustion was initiated. Removing it too soon meant that the match did not light; removing it too late often resulted in a burn. Sometimes a small piece of molten sulfur would stick to the finger resulting in a small but serious burn. I do not remember paper matches being labeled “Not Safety Matches,” but, they certainly were not safe.
At first it seemed most of us kids would remove our fingers too soon, resulting in repeated strikes in an attempt to light the match. Sometimes repeated striking resulted in the gradual removing of the sulfurous material rendering the match useless. Often an unlit paper stick would be discarded because it was no longer workable. Many times we would even run out of matches because we could not get the proper striking technique before expending our supply. Most often one good sulfur burn would considerably lighten the touch. For this reason it seemed we preferred wooden matches. If I had my way, they would have been labeled “Kid’s Matches.”