The Dark History of Matches


[♩INTRO] In the mid-1800s, factories began mass-producing
matches. Lots of them were hugely successful, and pretty
soon, they were selling millions of matchboxes a
year. And then the factory workers — many of whom
were young women — started dying. The symptoms would often start with a toothache
and jaw pain and then progress to tissue death. In some cases, the condition was fatal. Doctors eventually realized the problem was
the kind of phosphorus used in the matches at the time, so they called
the condition phossy jaw. But it still took decades and governmental
crack-downs for companies to switch over to another, safer type of phosphorus. These days, phossy jaw would be little more
than a relic of history, if it weren’t for one thing: It’s also
a side effect in modern medicine. The English chemist John Walker is frequently
credited with inventing the type of friction matches we would recognize,
back in the 1820s. The main ingredients in his match heads were
potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide, which ignited from the
heat of friction if you rubbed the match on sandpaper. There were some problems with these matches,
though. Sometimes they didn’t light at all… and because you had to really scrape them
to get the flame going, sometimes, the head of the match just flew off and there
became a tiny little fireball. Which was understandably concerning. Everything was flammable back then! Within ten years, though, a bunch of people
independently came up with an idea for a better match. They replaced the antimony sulfide with white
phosphorus one of the few different forms pure phosphorus
can take which took much less heat to ignite and was
therefore much more reliable. Soon, phosphorus match factories went into
production all over the world. And then the case reports started rolling
in: Factory workers were developing what would
soon become known as phossy jaw. The disease led to severe infections and caused
the patient’s bones to rot often starting with the jawbone. At the time, the only real treatment was to
remove any damaged bones and hope the infection wouldn’t spread to
the brain and turn fatal. It became clear that the problem had something
to do with the white phosphorus they were working with. Around one in ten workers on the factory floor
developed phossy jaw within five years of exposure, while the office
workers were unaffected. And it turns out white phosphorus is really
reactive, so it was combining with water vapor and carbon
dioxide in the workers’ breath as well as amino acids in their saliva to
create bisphosphonates. These compounds suppress a type of bone cell
called osteoclasts, whose job is to break down and reabsorb regular
bone tissue. So essentially, bisphosphonates keep bones
from replenishing themselves. And that lack of replenishment is more of
a problem for bones with fast cell turnover rates—like the jawbone. So in the presence of bisphosphonates, the
jawbone would start to die. And about 20% of the time, so would the patient. Lower class workers around the world knew
this was happening. So did their doctors, and at least some of
the general public. I mean, Charles Dickens was writing about
it in 1852. But factories in the mid-19th century weren’t
exactly known for their concern about factory workers. And for decades, very little changed. Then, in 1888, a match factory in London took
things a step too far and proved themselves to be especially terrible. That spurred a local socialist and activist,
Annie Besant, to write about the horrible conditions in
the factory which, in addition to the health risk, also
included long hours, low pay, and fines if a worker so much as
dropped a match. In response, the owners of the factory tried
to get the workers to sign a statement saying they were perfectly
happy with life there. They refused, and when one of the workers
was fired, all fourteen hundred of them went on what would become known as the Matchstick
Girls’ Strike. The strike finally called the world’s attention
to the phossy jaw problem. And it just so happened there was another,
safer way to make matches, which was discovered around 1850. The key is red phosphorus, another form of
pure phosphorus. Its atoms are arranged differently, which
means it doesn’t react chemically the same way white phosphorus does so it doesn’t cause phossy jaw and therefore
isn’t dangerous to factory workers. There is another benefit to red phosphorus,
too: You can use it to make safety matches these matches only light if you strike them
on the box. In safety matches, the match itself doesn’t
actually contain any phosphorus. Instead, the box is coated in red phosphorus
and powdered glass, while the match head’s ingredient is usually
potassium chlorate. When you strike the match on the box, the
friction with the powdered glass generates enough heat to turn a tiny amount
of the red phosphorus into white phosphorus. Then, this miniscule amount of white phosphorus
ignites those are the sparks you see as you strike
the match and the heat from that ignites the potassium
chlorate on the match head. And, finally, you get the flame. Now, despite all this, it took a long time
for red phosphorus matches to go mainstream. That’s partly because it wasn’t until
1906 that multiple countries came together and signed a treaty banning white phosphorus
matches. Even then, the US was not among the signatories so they kept making them for another twenty-five
years. Now, there are also other industries that
use white phosphorus, so changing over matches didn’t completely
eliminate its use. Still, as match factories switched to red
phosphorus, the number of new cases of phossy jaw dropped
dramatically. At least, until around 2003. See, in the 1990s, doctors started prescribing
bisphosphonates to treat certain types of bone disease like, metastatic cancers that spread to the
bone from other parts of the body. Researchers still aren’t totally sure how
bisphosphonates help, but they think it has something to do with
keeping healthy bone cells from being replaced by damaged ones. But then, the jawbones of some of the patients
started dying. Scientists quickly made the connection to
the phossy jaw of the late nineteenth century, and realized the tissue death was a side effect
of the medication. So, they decided to call this new disease
bis-phossy jaw. And it is still a thing. For a lot of patients, the benefits of bisphosphonates
outweigh the risk of developing bis-phossy jaw, so they’re
still being prescribed. And thanks in part to the match factory workers
way back when, we know a lot about what symptoms to look
out for when someone is at risk. It may have taken a long time for the world
to recognize the extent of the exploitation of those factory workers, but over 130 years
later, the legacy of the matchstick girls lives on. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! If you enjoyed this stroll through science
history, you might also like our episode on that time
the US government poisoned booze. And maybe consider clicking on that subscribe
button… We put out a new video every day, so you can count on us to feed your hunger
for science knowledge. [♩OUTRO]

100 thoughts on “The Dark History of Matches

  1. "Factories in the mid-19th century weren't exactly known for their concern about factory workers."
    And modern factories are? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuPont_(1802-2017)

  2. Phossy-Jaw. Gotta love that old school wistfulness. Also the 1800's name for stepping on a landmine was "bomby foot"

  3. At first I read the title as "The History of Dark Matches" and thought to myself "Why is SciShow doing a video on Wrestling?"

  4. modern saftety matches were invented by gustaf erik pasch!! one of the first factories producing his matches exists in my hometown in sweden and has been converted into a museum 🙂

  5. > …treaty banning white phosphorus matches, even then the US was not among the signatories, so they kept making them for another 25 years.

    Hmm, not sure if they're manufactured in the US, but you can still buy strike-anywhere matches. Wiki says: """The United States did not pass a law, but instead placed a "punitive tax" in 1913 on white phosphorus–based matches, one so high as to render their manufacture financially impractical""".

  6. Lol only stopped after government crackdowns my arse! The matchmakers unions were some of the strongest and most militant. It was due to the heroic fight of workers like Annie Bessant, who told their employers that they would not be subject to these awful conditions that included, as well as the terrible health complications, fourteen-hour work days, poor pay and excessive fines for mistakes.
    It was only after these struggles that the government had to step in in order to stop the spread of militancy amongst the work force, one that eventually inspired movements like the suffragettes and the powerful unions of the early 20th century.

    It is typical for our history to be washed clean of the heroic deeds of the working class and posthumously attributed to benevolent actions from those in power. All the gains that have been made have been fought for from below!

  7. Damn, it was goooood to be a man 150 years ago. Well, and 20,000 years ago. And 9 years ago. And last week…

  8. Hank I came for the fire but you surprised me with glass 4:33 .. I'm on-top of anything Fire or Glass related! Some of my glass work–> ⌛️ ⚗️ 🔎 ⛓ 🕯

  9. I get way too excited when I check the description and see its Hank

    I have zero issue listening to him since I have been since 2006

  10. well i suppose "my jaw bone is dying a bit" is better than "my whole body is dying of terminal bone cancer", still that's wild that people still get prescribed it

  11. 4:30 That is not a safety match, it's a strike-anywhere match. The white tip is made of Phosphorus sesquisulfide which is made by treating red phosphorus with sulfur. Safety matches have no white tip

  12. Your legacy lives on, matchstick girls. Thank you for your service, though it was not your choice. /salutes

  13. Noticing a trend here.

    The US isn't the world leader of ANYTHING. We kind of just catch up to the rest of the world.

    Go capitalism. -.-

  14. Hang on I have seen plenty safety matches light with friction alone not via the box?! Where does the ignition come from then?

  15. in addition for use in treating metastatic bone lesions you should mention that the more common use of bisphosphonates is to treat osteoporosis.

  16. 5:19 EXACTLY, the US ARMY! In kosovo, we had White Phosphorus Grenades(We only used them in practice, but still)

  17. Thank you for the history lesson and the way you bring light to things of the past, more specifically, issues of the past so we may learn from them.

  18. And this again is one example why we can't leave it to "the market" to regulate some things. Often enough "they" just don't, for what ever reason.

  19. Proof that the invisible hand of the market wants to grab you by the balls.

    But of course, of you so much as suggest any kind of regulation, you are a socialist commie 🙄.

  20. The United States refuses to sign a treaty already signed by multiple nations. The past, once again, being prologue…

  21. Today's Fact:

    In ancient Rome brains of rats were crushed and was used as toothpaste.

    Support my channel for more fun facts.

  22. And yet pretty much the exact same thing played out with the radium girls 50 years later. History will always repeat itself.

  23. People keep saying that history shows us that communism or goverment intervention can never work out, yet they keep forgetting what history showed us about capitalism and "free" market.

  24. AAAHHHH!!!!
    My dad was cancer and was mandated to get his teeth fixed to start treatment! So that only healthy teeth remain! I conclude, he takes Biphosphates.🤔

  25. A fine example of capitalism doing what it does best. It exploits wherever it can, and considers poor people expendable.

  26. I wonder if phossy jaw ever popped up in the military. I know in the mid 20th century they were using white phosphorus a fair amount.

  27. Why would people assume something is safe, e.g., working in a plant, taking an FDA approved drug, spraying with a weed killer? Could it be they trust govt. to protect them? Does it? What do you call a belief held in spite of evidence to the contrary? SUPERSTITION. What do you call this kind of belief? FAITH. Which is more popular, more prevalent, faith/superstition, or reason/science? What is the result worldwide? A pandemic of authoritarianism called coercive govt. Meanwhile, the authorities sell their superstition as a cure for every disease, social or economic. And the political zombies buy their lies and self-enslave, submit to govt. regs and exploitation, e.g., taxation (theft). And this is the fault in our species that ignored history proves. Reality may be denied, but not escaped.

  28. It should be realized that white phosphorus munitions are controlled, that is, when used legitimately as a smoke screen deployment, it is legal under international law, but when the white phosphorus is used as a direct weapon, or deployed in such a way that civilians are put at risk, it is illegal. The problem is that not every nation observes such laws, and worse, terrorists have no qualms with misusing chemicals as weapons.

  29. Radium Girls and Matchstick Girls, thank you for your contributions to science. I'm sorry for what you suffered through; you deserved better.

  30. 3:25 Annie Besant was 1 of the few British who had sympathy for India . She always supported freedom of India and Ireland. Such a great lady ,my fellow countrymen you shouldn't forget her struggle for us ….

  31. "Everything was flammable back then!" I chuckled.
    Also, the problem with the white phosphorus they were working with is that you shouldn't be working with white phosphorus.

  32. OK that was so weird, when the slow-mo video of the match lighting was on, I started smelling a match. The human brain is so cool!

  33. I learned about "phossy jaw" from a historical fantasy story called "Phosphorus" by Veronica Schanoes (published in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells). It was an incredibly moving and powerful story, and I'm not surprised it was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Can't recommend it enough.

  34. Interesting. When I was in the Army a long time ago, we used to eat the heads of matches that came in the rations. This was supposed to keep chiggers away. I don’t know of any science on it, but it seemed to work at least anecdotally.

  35. Trump supporters, THIS is why regulations are in place. Take them away and companies will exploit human beings in the most horrific ways imaginable.

  36. Match girls, radium girls, the triangle shirtwaist factory disaster… why were the women always working in the most volatile places? Even when my mom was hired on with Sun Oil Petroleum Refinery in Toledo, Ohio, she and one other woman were in charge of the most dangerous place in the entire refinery. They stood in a small, brick building where piping would come through and back out. At the joints, were pneumatic pressure valves that measured the psi of aromatic hydrocarbons, like benzene, toluene, xylene, etc. Doesn't seem outwardly dangerous but they all leaked a little bit and it wasn't abnormal for my mom or her partner to need a break to get fresh air. Fast forward a few years and my mother and that woman were both pregnant. Both fought tooth and nail for maternity leave. The other woman quit, she had no other recourse, but my mom's OBGYN had no issue getting a lawyer and threatening a suit straight to her CEO. It was too late though, when I was born, 6 inches of my large intestine never formed correctly and I developed 3 holes in my intestine. I've had numerous surgeries throughout my life because of that. She never planned on suing because nobody would take her case anyway, but when word got out that she bore a sick child, her own Union Steward had his sons sexually harass her and threaten her life until she quit.
    Again, why is it always the women who bare such things in the workforce? In my mom's case, she was only one of a very few women working in a refinery like that, but these other examples are all women. Never any men. Just women.

  37. Now it makes sense how in wild west movies..they would light matches on any surfaces…usually on the back of their friends ears

  38. I've literally never heard the term (bis)phossy jaw. I learned it as osteonecrosis of the jaw, or ONJ.

    Fun fact about bisphosphonates though, their half life in bone (a measure of how long it sticks around) is on the order of YEARS, so patients treated with bisphosphonates like alendronate usually have a drug holiday (i.e. stop taking the med) after 3-6 years.

  39. Thanks for the history lesson, could you do one on the strike anywhere matches like the ohio blue tip. We used to strike them against our blue jeans and thumb nail and they'd lite.

  40. The message I get from this is that it was discovered to be killing people in 1850. It took 30 years for it to stop in the UK. And 70 or 80 years in the US. For whatever reason, people are incapable of successfully standing up for themselves, even in matters of life and death.

  41. 5:15 Feels like this attitude has never really gone away. Has there ever been a time the US hasn't just done literally the bare minimum when it comes to protecting its people?

  42. The US behind the rest of the world by 25 years because to them any good policy that benefits exploited workers is "socialism"? no surprise there same as it ever was

  43. Why is the US always decades behind the rest of the world in terms of public safety and workplace health standards? So much for “the land of the free”, more like land of exploitation of the poor.

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