Note: Since the world’s eyes were focused on Thurmont this past weekend, I figured I’d post a historical story about the town.
Jacob Weller was a blacksmith and the grandson of one of the founders of Mechanicstown. He knew how to make tools and he did that well in his shop across the street from his house in Mechanicstown. He was proud of his work, so proud in fact, that you often see his name as “Jacob Weller, B.S.” for Jacob Weller, blacksmith.
Jacob was born on January 25, 1775. He was the oldest of nine children born to Jacob and Anna Krall Weller. Jacob married Anna Margaret Weller in 1800. She was the granddaughter of another unrelated Weller family who were also one of the founders of Mechanicstown. They had five children before Anna died in 1816. Jacob remarried the following year and he and Mary Love had 10 children.
Besides being a blacksmith, Jacob also proved himself an entrepreneur. He began investing in real estate in August 1805. His first property purchases in Mechanicstown were two lots on the north side of Main Street. Here he built a large stone house for his family, but it was also used as Mechanicstown’s first inn.
“He built the first inn in town, had his blacksmith shop, had his hand in a couple of mills and his family helped found two churches,” said John Kinnaird, vice president of the Thurmont Historical Society.
Weller purchased two acres on the south side of Main Street in Mechanicstown across the street from his home. There he built a one and half story stone building with a workshop behind it. In the workshop, Weller operated his edged-tool factory. He made axes, shovels, hoes and other tools using the flowing water of Hunting Creek to cool the metal.
“Weller was a good blacksmith, but he became more famous for developing matches,” Kinnaird said.
Fire on a stick
Weller was a curious man with interests beyond iron. In the early 1800s, he saw a set of French matches while he was on a trip to Frederick. He marveled at how a wooden stick struck against an abrasive could ignite quicker than flint and steel. What’s more, a person using a match didn’t have to hope that the spark would catch on kindling. Matches nearly always created a small flame that easily ignited and the matchstick itself served as the initial kindling.
Weller recognized the matches’ usefulness and his mind began to work on how he could make his own matches.
“Using his father’s library plus his own technical skills, he discovered the secret of the sulphur-tipped sticks and soon began their manufacture,” Michael Spaur wrote in the Frederick Post.
Though matches are mass produced today, in 1825 when Weller began making them, “Their process was slow and laborious, each splint having to be cut and dipped separately in the composition which formed its head,” James Cooke Mills wrote in Searchlights on Some American Industries.
The match splints were hand cut from basswood or other softwoods.
“The matches were made from a block of softwood that was cut in a cross hatch. Then the tips were dipped in his secret recipe. Then you would break off each match individually as you needed one,” Kinnaird said.
The match block was a 2-inch cube that contained between 100 and 150 matches, according to Spaur. The matches were packaged in a box along with a small piece of sandpaper and sold for 25 cents a box.
History of matches
Robert Boyle, an Irish physicist, created the first thing that could be thought of as a match in 1669. He coated a piece of paper with phosphorous and a small piece of wood with sulfur. When he rubbed the paper across the wood, he created a fire.
However, though he had all of the elements, Boyle failed to turn them into a match.
Most accounts list Englishman John Walker as the creator of friction matches in 1827. However Weller began manufacturing his matches in 1825 after he got the idea from French matches. Weller’s matches also more-closely resembled what we consider matches today.
Walker made his matches on yard-long sticks and called them “sulphretted peroxide strikables.” He used antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum and starch in his formula. The match stick was dipped in the formula and allowed to dry. It ignited when the stick was struck against a hard surface.
At the same time Weller’s and Walker’s friction matches were being developed, some inventors created a Promethean match. Introduced in 1828, a Promethean match had a small glass bulb containing sulfuric acid and coated with potassium chlorate, sugar and gum and then wrapped in paper. A person bit down on the glass bulb to strike the match. Because it wasn’t as easy to use as a friction match, its popularity quickly died out.
Marketing the devil’s work
Although Weller’s formula for a match head turned out to be a simple one, it was a dangerous one. Experiments with mixing and refining the formula resulted in several explosions in the workshop, local historian Anne Cissel wrote in an article “Jacob Weller: America’s first manufacture of stick matches” in Thurmont Scrapbook: Glimpses of History.
Jacob and his son Joseph met with a lot of resistance when trying to sell the matches. People were suspicious of something that could become flammable so easily.
“Peddlers whom Jacob Weller sent out to market his flame-producing bits of wood, often encountered vigorous sales resistance, often expressed by the sharp teeth of the householder’s dogs. Many wild tales swept through the countryside. The frontier folk warned each other that these new fire sticks would explode and blow a man, his family and his earthly possessions high into the peaceful Maryland sky,” George Wireman wrote in his book Gateway to the Mountain.
Weller’s early matches were called lucifers, perhaps because their flammable tips came from a red brimstone mixture. Whatever the reason, it would prove not to be the best choice for a name because many people already thought matches were the work of the devil.
“’Instant fire’ was not readily accepted by many religious sects,” Spaur wrote.
Failure to patent
Others soon recognized the usefulness of the matches and by 1832, lucifers were well known in the area. Though Weller was a clever inventor and manufacturer, he didn’t patent his version of the match. Enterprising businesspeople purchased Weller’s lucifers and used them as patterns to create their own versions. A Massachusetts man secured the first American patent on matches in 1836.
This mistake led Weller to financial ruin in the late 1830’s. Weller became an “insolvent debtor” and trustees sold off his properties. He died in 1846 and was buried in the cemetery of the church his family helped establish. At the time, the church was known at Weller’s Church, but today, it is Weller’s United Methodist Church.
The Match House today
Today the Match House still stands where it always has in Thurmont. It is a private house owned by John and Susan Laugher and the workshop is long gone.
“We didn’t know about its history when we bought it,” said John Laugher. “The previous owners and our neighbor told us about it.”
The Baughers have owned the house for 13 years. Though they haven’t made any major changes to the house, John Laugher said former owners over the years had made changes that made the house ineligible to the on the National Register of Historic Homes.
“The original match house was a single story, but sometime in the past, a second story was added and there’s an addition on the back,” Laugher said.
Despite not being formally recognized as historic, Laugher still enjoys living in a home where history was made nearly two centuries ago.
“The Match House is very important to Thurmont’s history,” Kinnaird said. “Very few small communities have a major first like having the first commercially produced friction matches made there.”