Bank Holiday Puzzler: what is this object?

A small puzzle for the August Bank Holiday weekend which you might enjoy.

What is this object?

To give you a brief description: it measures six and a half by five an a half inches. There is a cup-like receptacle at the top left which holds something (photo a); a curled-up lip at the bottom which also holds something (photo b); and a lined and unglazed area in the middle (photo c). It dates from the second half of the 19th century.

Photo a)

Photo b)

The object is now redundant. What is it?

I hope you all have a great Bank Holiday.

Elizabeth Hawksley








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12 thoughts on “Bank Holiday Puzzler: what is this object?”

  1. My guess: It is an accessory for wooden or kitchen matches. Fresh matches are stored above, the unglazed area is the striker, and spent matches go below.

    1. Thank you for your intelligent answer, Steve. But do you have an explanation for why, when I tried to light a match by striking it on the unglazed bit, the ridges just destroyed the match.

      1. The physical composition of strike-anywhere matches has changed over the past century and a half. I don’t suppose you have a legacy box of Bryant and May lucifers around, eh? Older matches used a more easily fired (and less safe) white phosphorus mixture for the tip.


        It is an elegant, but poor design. Thus the piece saw little use and survived intact. I would try striking in the direction of the grooves for more surface contact. But that’s lateral motion. One would have to hold the fixture with one hand while striking with the other. Impractical, but maybe possible.


        Perhaps it is a smudging accessory. Fresh herb is kept above, You light a bit, smudge the flame out against the ridges, and let the aromatic bundle smoke in the lower cup.

        That being said, I’m sticking with supposition one: a match holder/striker.

        I want to say something clever and Eeyore-like about “guess I’ll never be a novelist”, but I can’t think of anything. And that’s why… I’ll never be a novelist. (grin) Okay, how’s this? I want to be a writer, but I can’t hold on to my “tale.”

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. I can quite see why you thought it was something to do with flowers – the object is pretty and feminine. When I first saw it, I thought: Ah, hairpins! But that didn’t explain the unglazed bit.

  2. I agree about the holder for matches. But it is such a decorative item that I think it was designed for the parlour and held matches to light the gas lighting fitments.

    1. What a brilliant suggestion, Pauline. I can just picture it and it’s an explanation which certainly adds to the object’s provenance and explains its prettiness. Have you thought of becoming a novelist?

  3. Thank you for your brilliant response, Steve. Your first point is the correct one. Matches took a surprisingly long time to develop. The ‘phosphoric taper’ first made its appearance in 1781. They were so dangerous that men lighting their pipes with one ran a very real risk of setting their hair and beards alight as well.

    They were not only dangerous to light, the white or yellow phosphorus which was used for the tip of the match carried a deadly disease with it, phosphorus necrosis, which destroyed the jawbones of the match-workers who made the matches – which led to the famous 1888 Bryant & May match-girl workers’ strike for safer working conditions, which they eventually won.

    The other point, which answers the rough surface problem, is that, originally, any rough surface would do to light the match. Indeed, young men used to strike matches on the backside of their trousers as an act of bravado – with sometimes disastrous results. So the rough surface on my object was fine back in about 1880 – it would do the job. Modern safety matches need a properly designed surface to strike on.

    I could, of course, have said all this when you first commented, but, as you were the first person to offer an answer – which was basically correct – I prevaricated a little to give other readers time to have their say. I hope you will forgive me.

    1. For my part I did feel a bit greedy giving what was probably the correct answer within minutes of your posting. I, too, wanted to hear what your other respondents had to say without steam-rollering the game. So I stated it as “my guess” to leave the door open and perhaps “spark” our imaginations. Thank you for your kind words and diplomatic timing. And oh, the young bravos still strike matches on their bums out here in the Wild West. Gotta be wearin’ dungarees, though.

      1. Thank you for your understanding, Steve. I’m fascinated by the young bravos still doing the bum-striking trick in the Wild West!

        1. This is not urban behavior per se. It’s more the kind of playing at mastery one does while camping or tramping.

          This was a fun foray! Thank you, Elizabeth!

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