by Daniel Bexfield
These pocket-sized cases for carrying matches took their name from 'Vesta', the Roman Goddess of the hearth and home. A 'match' was known as a 'vesta' up until the twentieth century when 'match' became the favoured term. It was essential to carry the vestas in a case as they were highly flammable and needed to be kept dry. The inside of the case would often be gilded to protect the silver from the sulphur head of the match, which would otherwise tarnish the silver.
Vesta cases were in great use between the 1860's and 1940's. They were carried predominantly by men in a waistcoat pocket or on a 'double Albert' chain, which held a pocket watch on one side and a vesta case on the other. The invention of the pocket petrol lighter initiated a decline in the need and use of the vesta case, during the first world war soldiers found the petrol lighter lasted longer and was easy to refill.
The vesta case can be found in all shapes and sizes, they were made from a variety of different materials including silver, silver-plate, bakerlite, brass, copper and of course gold. The most common design is that of figure1, which includes a jump link to attach an 'Albert' chain, a sprung lid and a strike on its base (figure 2).
The hallmarks are usually found on the lip of the main body (figure 3), which is hidden when the lid is shut. The lid should show part hallmarks, corresponding with those on the main body. The majority of vesta cases were made and assayed in Birmingham, followed by London and then Chester, by makers such as Joseph Gloster, Deakin & Francis, A & J Zimmerman, C. Saunders & F.Shepherd to name but a few.
Vestas were plain, or decorated in various ways; they could be hand or machine engraved, sometimes enamelled with sporting, gambling or semi-clad woman motifs or set with semi-precious or precious stones. Many vestas still have the engraved initials of the original owner on them with or without further decoration.
Combination vesta cases incorporate other items such as a sovereign case, stamp case, pen knife, cigar cutter or whistle in to their design. Novelty cases were also introduced that took forms of animals or the bust of a famous celebrity; commemorative examples were also manufactured for special occasions, for example Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.
The strikes were often pressed in to the silver as in figure 4 however, this could wear away and the metal lose its sharpness with use. Higher quality cases were produced with a strike made from steel, which was soldered on to the base of the vesta.
There is huge scope for the collector in the variety and price range of these wonderful little boxes which were once in everyday usage and now rarely seen. The American term for the vesta case is 'matchsafe'.
Main areas to look for when Buying:-
Damage to the hinge or the lid not shutting properly.
If the metal spring is missing it prevents the lid from shutting tightly.
Knocks and dents, especially to the corners.
The poor erasure of initials and inscriptions.
The hallmarks are readable.
Splits in the silver along the natural seam as the case is made in two halves.
Confirm whether any enamel has been damaged or repaired, if so, does the price take this into consideration.
As vesta cases are in great demand by collectors, it is inevitable that fakes and forgeries will enter the market place. The most common fakes that I see, are originally plain vesta cases that have been enamelled by the forger, usually the scene will be of a sporting, gambling or nude nature.