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On a cold winter night, a little girl lights her matches to keep warm. She sacrifices everything just to see the fantastic images created by the flame of the matches. You may have heard of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, a story of a girl who can’t go home until she has sold her matches. She isn’t the only match girl in history, however. In the same century, “matchstick girls” suffered terrible health issues manufacturing matches.
In 1845, Andersen published his tale of a girl who is too afraid to go home and be beaten if she doesn’t sell her matches on the street. Shivering from cold, she lights one, then another, and another as she sees comforting visions of a Christmas tree, food, and finally, her late grandmother. The story was an insight into the horrible conditions of the poor.
In the 1800s, people worked in horrible conditions: long hours in factories in unsafe and unhealthy environments. Both children and adults worked in these places. In 1888, the “matchstick girls” made news headlines with a strike that brought attention to the dangerous conditions of the factory where the matchstick girls worked.
They worked long hours, starting at 6:30 in the morning for little pay. Some girls started working at these factories as young as age 13. Thousands of people labored at these factories in terrible conditions to manufacture matches, working with machinery after receiving insufficient training.
The women worked 14-hour days in London and were exposed to deadly phosphorous vapors from the white phosphorous dipped onto the tips of matches. The toxic phosphorous caused health complications such as “phossy jaw” that caused the jaw to rot. The purpose of the strike was to improve working conditions, but it was decades later before white phosphorous was banned from public use.
Today, wooden matches are made entirely by machines. The process is safer for the workers compared to a century ago. When you think about it, a match is such a small item, but it has more impact than just creating a flame.
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