Rectangular Vesta matchbox, 1897.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
The box is made of black ebonite and has hinged flaps for opening. The top is decorated with a Jubilee portrait of Queen Victoria and the reverse is marked with 'R' encircled by a leaf and flower decoration. In the mid 19th century it was found that reacting soft, sticky natural rubber with sulphur (vulcanisation), produced a dark, hard, mouldable material called 'vulcanite' or 'ebonite'. This became an important electrical insulator and was also moulded to make objects such as brooches, pipe stems and this matchbox, and eventually, tyres.