visual snacks: matchbox labels from Japan/China

matchbox label

No Phillumenist I, nor proper collector of anything, but like most graphic designers I love a nice bit of printed ephemera. I bought these matchbox labels in Thailand, and as far as I can tell they are mostly (all?) Japanese, made for the Chinese market and stone lithography printed. I can’t read the text (which might explain much) but the use of flags in some puts them in the  second and third decades of the 20th century – beyond that my ignorance is complete, not that that hinders my enjoyment of them. What is going on in the example above for instance? A diminutive husband and wife extending hospitality to an outsized westerner? or two smartly-dressed children welcoming Daddy home (wondering why he could not afford a full-sized house)? Either way – the drawing, pattern, texture and colours are beautiful.


This puzzling kitten-weighing scenario is probably not an illustration to a recipe printed on the other side of the matchbox. The coloured stripes on the weight are those of the flag of the ‘five great races of the Republic of China’ (red = Han, yellow = Manchus, blue = Mongols, white = Huis (Muslims) & Uyghurs, black = Tibetans). The kitten seems to be wearing the star emblem of the Chinese army, so perhaps this is about the new/young army being as powerful as all China – plausible, if dull. I prefer the kitten-cuisine theory. Or perhaps this is simply The Heaviest Kitten in China.



A century ago, competitive toad-confusing occupied a similar cultural position in the Republic of China to that of Formula 1 racing today. Here a celebrated frog-jockey simultaneously baffles not one but two oversized amphibians. Or not.



matchbox label lion

matchbox label cats

Cats, cats, cats. Lucky, lucky cats (and an unfortunate mouse). But who is the dapper gent in the coins above?



A scroll, barrel, coral, hat, false beard and other accoutrements suggest a mysterious (but enjoyable) night out.



winged deer matchbox label

Winged deer no doubtless more auspicious than the standard peony-munching kind favoured by Dawoodally & Co.



Lucky bats, lucky money. Lucky chubby kids.



This crab seems to be roughly the size of a small family car, long before nuclear energy, Godzilla etc. Frightening but no doubt also somehow lucky.



Two partridges in a staring competition slug it out for a bottle of sake or plum brandy.



More nationalistic labels celebrating the Chinese Republic. Research confirms that the left-hand cherub in the example above is verifiably not Noel Gallagher.

The two above examples feature a lucky swastika background pattern many years before that annoying Mr H. got hold of  it and ruined it for everyone else.

matchbox label peach

Peach. Probably pretty damn lucky. Peach wood was used to make swords/arrows because the Chinese word for peach has the same pronunciation as the word for ‘run away’. Hats off to the ancient Chinese and their wordplay-based military procurement strategy.





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