Guest post by Laurie Benson – ‘From a spark to a flame’

What was the Georgian equivalent to today’s disposable lighter?  Well, back today with us is the lovely Laurie Benson, host of the fascinating blog  The Cozy Drawing Room which you may wish to check out. Laurie is also a recently published author  which you can find out more about at the end of this post. So, in the meantime we’ll hand you over to Laurie to find out the answer to the question above.

There are times when you’re writing historical fiction that it becomes obvious your characters will need to do things differently than you do in the twenty-first century. I had one of those moments recently when I was writing An Unexpected Countess, which is set in London during the Regency era.

Early 19th century solid silver pocket tinder box. Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane

In the story my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, is out in the middle of the night searching for a clue that will lead him to the location of a piece of the missing French Crown Jewels. It’s dark in the building he is in. If this was a contemporary story, Hart would pull out his flashlight (or torch as the British call it) and he would have sufficient enough light to thoroughly search the building. But Hart lives in 1819, so instead of a flashlight he would have used something like this small folding pocket candle lantern.

An 18th Century French Pocket Candle Lantern. Photo courtesy of Prices 4 Antiques

It’s really handy, right? Here is the part where the author in me rubs my head in frustration. How would he have lit it? There were no lighters. Did they even have matches back then? I’d heard of matchstick girls, but were they around in the early 19th century and did they sell the same kind of matches we use today?

Selling matches for tinderboxes in London c. 1821. Photo courtesy of

It’s times like this I’m especially grateful for my friends who own antique shops because they can often help point me in the right direction and this time one of them did by telling me about tinderboxes.

Tinderboxes were used in the Georgian era to create fire. They could be small enough to fit inside a pocket and were made of wood or metal and contained flint, steel, tinder, and sulfur-tipped matches. The tinder that was used would generally have been char cloth, which is a small piece of cloth made from linen, jute, or cotton that would ignite easily from a spark.

Antique Pocket Size Tinderbox

To start a fire you would strike the piece of steel against the flint close to the char cloth that was nestled in the bottom of the tinderbox. The spark from that action would ignite the char cloth. You then could light your sulfur-tipped match off the burning tinder to light a candle or your pipe. To extinguish the char cloth, you would simply close the box. This would preserve the remaining tinder for future use.

Any card matches or SaveallsTitle (series)The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life A young match seller walking to right with basket over her right arm and her wares held in both hands, looking over her shoulder to left; from late series of the Cries of London, the plate reworked. 1688, reworked and published after c.1750. Etching and engraving Courtesy of British Museum

Tinderboxes were used throughout the Georgian era but gradually were replaced by friction matches, which were invented around 1827.

514wnuoigzl-_sx298_bo1204203200_Laurie Benson is an award-winning author of historical romances published by Harper Collins. Her current series, The Secret Lives of the Ton, takes place in London during the Regency era and are available from Amazon and all good book sellers. When she’s not at her laptop avoiding laundry, she can often be found browsing museums or heading for the summit on a ridiculously long hike. You can also catch up with Laurie on Twitter and Facebook.



















7 thoughts on “Guest post by Laurie Benson – ‘From a spark to a flame’

  1. Dear ATG,

    Just to say that I admire the range of topics you cover under the heading of Things Georgian – I’m a fan of the site.

    Please take a glance at the history topics I cover on

    Kind regards,

    Reggie Unthank


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Georgian and Regency matches were horrible things, thin slips of wood tipped with sulphur, that were used for carrying fire between rooms. They smelt dreadful (I speak from experience, having made some) and were sometimes called ‘spunks’.

    The friction match was invented in the late 1820’s but weren’t generally available until well into Victoria’s reign. I retold the curious story of their invention in my own blog, which you might like to check out.

    Thanks for a fascinating post.


  3. OErjan

    Minor point, the charcloth had to be “chared” to catch a spark, that is heated without air enough to become charcoal.
    also with enough “char” you can light a piece of birchbark, paper or similar directly, without the sulfur sticks.
    considering price of fabric around 1800 not many could afford burning even scraps, so another very common tinder was charred “punkwood”.
    punkwood is spongy rotten wood (the more it feels like sponge the better), often found just lying on the ground or in stumps… birch, aspen, willow and alder prefferably.

    to char whatever you choose I used a small tin can last time (about size of a small cup), but a terracotta pot or similar should work (will take longer though).
    fill with material you wish to char.
    put upside down near burning coals (or if loosely fitting lid just directly on coals).
    Rake coals around until insides gets red hot.
    Wait half hour, allow to cool, it should be filled with black material that catches spark.


  4. 18thcenturylivinghistory

    Not exactly the correct information, sorry. The tinder in the tinderbox was usually charred tow rag, though linen & cotton could be used. Amadou was sold in the city streets for tinder, & it was also available from an apothecary. Charred tow rag was common in the city, but in the country they tended to use plant & fungi tinders.
    Spunks/sulphur matches were not generally kept in the tinderbox. The tinderbox was also used to prepare tinder. The tinder material was charred directly in the fire, then placed in the tinderbox to smother the glowing embers. Tinder does not flame, although partially charred cloth will sometimes catch fire.
    You do not strike the flint with the steel unless you are using what I call “The Joseph Method”, which does not use tinder in the tinderbox. Striking sparks into a tinderbox you need to strike the steel with the flint so you can direct the sparks downward onto the tinder in the tinderbox.
    With Respect & Regards, Keith.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Tinderbox – Curiosidades, pesquisas históricas e dicas literárias

  6. Pingback: tinderbox – Aline Galeote

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