In Brief

The friction-ignited matches that people learned to take for granted in the 20th century were an invention of the 19th, with different forms sold under competing brand names. Characters in Ulysses use the "vesta" and the "lucifer." Joyce did not fail to exploit the resonances of the latter name, and his avatar Stephen seems to regularly find symbolic potential in the sudden flaming candescence of these portable fires.

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Early 19th century inventors in several European countries experimented with chemical-coated sticks that could be ignited by crushing a glass bulb or pinching the head inside a folded sheet of sandpaper. A variety developed by the Scotsman Sir Isaac Holden was sold under the Lucifer label in the 1830s, evoking the flames of hell. The name persisted in British slang into the 20th century, becoming attached to later varieties that ignited less explosively and dangerously. The shorter matches called Vestas, named for the Roman goddess of the hearth, also appeared in the 1830s. Instead of wood their sticks were made of cotton threads embedded in wax, in the manner of a candlewick. This name has lasted to the present day, but now applied to matches made of wooden sticks.

A vesta makes an appearance in Wandering Rocks when "Two pink faces turned in the flare of the tiny torch" held by the reverend Hugh C. Love as he is being escorted through the chapter house of St. Mary's Abbey: "The vesta in the clergyman’s uplifted hand consumed itself in a long soft flame and was let fall. At their feet its red speck died: and mouldy air closed round them." In Circe Bloom "picks up and hands a box of matches" to Stephen, who has lost them while fumbling in his pockets. He replies, "Lucifer. Thanks." Ithaca recounts how Bloom, after dropping off the area railing and entering his kitchen, "ignited a lucifer match by friction" in order to light a coal gas flame. He uses another "ignited lucifer match" to start a coal fire in the hearth.

On this second occasion, some aspect of the narrative consciousness that seems close to the scientifically minded Bloom's observes the match lighting the paper, sticks, and coal in the fireplace, "thereby releasing the potential energy contained in the fuel by allowing its carbon and hydrogen elements to enter into free union with the oxygen of the air." But just before this, a different kind of awareness has noted Bloom lighting the assembled fuel "at three projecting points of paper with one ignited lucifer match." The suggestion that the Holy Trinity has thereby been consumed by demonic energy clearly accords with Stephen's ways of thinking. The appearance of fire in the hearth, then, becomes one of the many occasions on which a reader is made to feel the thoughts of the two protagonists strangely meshing.

Stephen's fixation on the small fires also appears in Aeolus, where matches figure twice. J. J. O'Molloy takes out his cigarette case and asks, "Who has the most matches?" He offers a cigarette to Professor MacHugh and to the man who provides a match, Lenehan. Later in the chapter, O'Molloy takes out the case again and someone looks on as he lights a new smoke: "Messenger took out his matchbox thoughtfully and lit his cigar. / I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives." The reader is hard pressed to make sense of this strange irruption into the already disorienting prose of Aeolus. Should one take seriously its suggestion that tiny actions can have huge consequences? One thing seems certain, though: someone in the newspaper office, probably Stephen, has been staring at a lit match and seeing mysteries unfold. 

JH 2018
Lucifer matches manufactured by R. Bell's of London, with the enclosed piece of folded sandpaper. Source:
Swan Vesta matches manufactured by the large English firm Bryant and May and sold in a metal box to protect against accidental ignition. Source:
American Lucifer matches from the Civil War era. Source: