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Close Cover Before Striking: Alexander Von Wolff

Alexander von Wolff reignites the nearly extinct culture of the matchbook by enlarging and restoring vintage matchbooks of local San Francisco venues past and present. Blown up to over 10 times their original size, these tiny pieces of nostalgic ephemera become pieces of artwork in their own right as they offer a glimpse into the historic heart of San Francisco.

Matchbooks and the designs on them are reflections of the times in which they are produced. In a material sense, matchbooks carry traces of the present through the methods and printing technologies used to produce them. In a theoretical sense, matchbooks are bearers of popular cultural imagination through their mottos, graphics, colors and themes. To encounter a trove of matchbooks from a particular era is to experience and relive that eras way of speaking and being.

Fabricated to be used-up and discarded, it is remarkable that any matchbooks from the Tenderloin have survived. Fortunately, for some people matchbooks represent more than mere advertising campaigns and are rather keepsakes to be treasured. von Wolff’s art practice of what he calls the “vintage expansion principle” ensures that these tiny pieces of nostalgic ephemera continue to live on.

Come indulge in your own brand of phillumeny (def: collecting match-related items) and join us for the opening of von Wolff’s art show, which includes a few pieces inspired by matchbooks from our book The Match Book: Vintage Matchbooks from San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

On display at the Tenderloin Museum until March 31st.

This event is part of The Tenderloin Match Book: Historical Ephemera Project a multi-faceted project that also encompasses the publication of The Match Book: Vintage Matchbooks from San Francisco’s Tenderloin, an artfully designed history book of the Tenderloin featuring the matchbooks of local businesses and cultural institutions; the Tenderloin Ephemera Exhibition, featuring historical Tenderloin ephemera from the 1920’s-1950’s, including bar signs, glassware, postcards, menus, matchbooks et al.; the first addition to the Tenderloin Museum’s permanent exhibit, The Matchbook Map Exhibit, featuring a searchable, interactive touchscreen map that connects matchbook imagery to historical info on the associated business and address. 

Through the everyday act of picking up a matchbook and striking a match, one is transported to another place and time; the past is remembered through a pedestrian interaction with a tangible object. Matchbooks are emblems of local culture: accessible, utilitarian ephemera that functioned as the chosen form of advertising for small businesses in an era before plastic lighters and health concerns about smoking. These ritual objects exist at a fascinating intersection of material culture, local history, and design art; matchbooks (and other local business ephemera) are striking populist artifacts that serve as portals to places and people in a neighborhood’s past. The Match Book: Tenderloin Historical Ephemera Project presents an illuminating new perspective on the Tenderloin’s often overlooked history, enriches the detail and depth of the neighborhood’s narrative, and ignites the Tenderloin community’s historical imagination.