Eating out has changed much through the centuries. From medieval banqueting to millennial portability and pressed Peacock to meat-free bacon, we are continuing to redefine how we dine. In the days when most restaurants had tables and chairs that were not attached to the floor, we could expect an array of traditions that are disappearing into time. The so-called “hostess” stand of the day was often decorated with all manner of treats. There would be the bowl of unwrapped butter mints, a dispenser filled with toothpicks and business cards — so that you’d be able to call for another reservation before the internet made a call nearly pointless — and a bowl filled with books of matches.
Containing 20 or so cardboard strips of matches coated on one end with a dollop of phosphorous sulfide, they were given to guests who were expected to light a cigarette, or a few, at the end of the meal. Even if a voracious smoker, the patron would leave with 15 or so unused matchsticks and a handy reminder of the evening spent. The best places would offer wooden matches in tidy pocket-sized boxes. Folks collected, even prized, the tokens with a 1927 Lindberg one selling for more than $6,000 in 2015.
One might imagine that the restaurateur sent the matches out into the world to strike thousands of little fires, reminders to return and dine again. They might have concentrated their money into a single bonfire, with all the matches piled high. But would a fire, even one visible from miles away, have the same impact? Are we better to build and rely upon a single great act, or is our story told best through 1,000 little flames? When we interact with those around us, do we construct grand bonfires or pass out simple matchbooks?