Autumn 1993

Propaganda for the pocket

Czech matchbox labels form a miniature gallery of Czechoslovakian society under communism

Ubiquitous, cheap and disposable, the matchbox has been adorned with advertisements for everything from refrigerators to motor oil. It has been a vehicle for empire-building as much as for promoting the corner restaurant. In the countries of the former Soviet bloc, the state-controlled production of matchbox labels was exploited as a means of publicising political initiatives, promoting public health and safety, and selling the communist ideal both at home and abroad.

The matchbox labels illustrated here are the product of three Czechoslovakian factories – Soho Lipnik, Solo Susice and Smrecina B. Bystrica – and span a 30-year period from the early 1950s. The Solo match company began life in 1834 – just seven years after the first documented sale of matches. At the turn of the century, at the time of a war in match supply, the many small operations that had grown up were amalgamated and the large Solo Lipnik factory in Moravia and Solo Susice factory in Solvenia were founded, to be joined in the early 1950s under the Solo banner by the Bystrica works.

Following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia before the Second World War, the Solo factories were required to print labels to designs issued by the central German matchbox monopoly in Berlin. With the formation of the Peoples Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the Solo factories came under the auspices of Soviet central government. All printed communications were vetted, and matchbox label designs were controlled through the state publishing enterprise Orbis, which commissioned the printing and supplied the factories with finished sheets. During this period the two Solo factories also independently produced more than twenty sets of labels a year, from one-off designs to collections of up to 30 different types.

Labels from the period are most often available in their unglued form, ready to be fixed to thin wooden matchboxes. This type of box was superseded in the west in the late 1970s by the printed and folded card boxes known as skillets, but has only recently become obsolete in the former Soviet bloc countries. Many labels will still be found in uncut sets, a result of factories having to provide the collectors’ associations with copies and details of every label produced. These provide excellent records of the political and social programmes that the labels depict.

Subject matter was determined by whoever sponsored the set – state enterprises, government ministries or organizations such as the Red Cross. Such groups either employed specialists or used their own in-house designers, with a consequent variation in quality and style. Early endorsements of communism include labels to commemorate the Soviet Five Year Plan, the space programmes and the continuing fight against capitalism through celebrations of the October Revolution and the Liberation of Europe.

Techniques of reproduction are crude and usually gain their effect through combinations of several flat colours. Photographic reproductions are rare. Sometimes paper stocks were changed to provide a different effect, but on the whole there is little variation in style over the 30-year period.

In Poland all five match factories published roughly the same labels – a level of control that is evident to varying degrees across the Soviet satellites. In Czechoslovakia, the fierce pride and independence of the Dubeck period is reflected in the short-lived freedom and optimism of the labels. But post-Prague Spring, designs return to Soviet idealism, with editions celebrating the role of communism as the moderniser of society.

The building programme, social progress, welfare and technology advances are consistently reworked themes, with labels depicting details of industrial development, of factories and machinery, of transport, CSK and the Skoda factories. The welfare factories commissioned many sets giving information akin to that provided by western public information campaigns on themes that include personal hygiene and road safety, energy conservation and pollution control.

Labels were produced ostensibly for internal Czechoslovak consumption, with no distinction made for the tourist trade. As all industrial organisations were state-owned and therefore economically protected, set quotas had to be maintained, but factories faced limited competition, and then only from other closed communist economies. Soviet manufactures produced cheap, simplistic labels for the internal market and more elaborate designs promoting tourism. In both instances, the state fight against capitalism was the continuing theme.

Collectors’ associations were encouraged by the authorities in many of the Eastern bloc countries. Throughout the 1980s the Czechoslovakian union of matchbox collectors numbered more than 5500 members in a population of 15 million (its closest relative in the UK had barely 1000 members). Such clubs were one of the few ways people were able to correspond and travel across the Iron Curtain.

Solo Lipnik and Solo Susice are still in operation today, with the Lipnik factory recently renamed Morago AS Ltd following its privatisation. The trend towards private enterprise has encouraged local entrepreneurs to commission small numbers of labels for cafes, bars, and hotels, most of which used unsophisticated and crude designs reminiscent of poor quality yellow pages advertising. These provide an interesting contrast with labels from the Communist era, their designs motivated by a desire to communicate idealistic messages to a wide audience. The lack of commercial pressure allowed a rich vein of originality and elaboration, the nearest parallel in collectable media perhaps being the development of the postage stamp.

Matchbox labels from the former Eastern bloc may display a certain naïvety, but nonetheless demonstrate a remarkable ability to communicate across language barriers. Produced for the most part as propaganda and controlled to a large degree by the state, they provide a fascinating insight into the operation of a fast-disappearing society.

First published in Eye no. 10 vol. 3, 1993

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