Andrew Selth discusses how matchbox labels provide a glimpse into the culture of colonial Burma.

In the not so distant past, the worlds of the academic and the private collector rarely coincided, at least not publicly. Collectibles, that is objects considered of interest or value to a collector, were usually seen as insignificant, both in themselves and in formal research terms. However, this picture is gradually changing.

Greater attention is now being paid to popular culture as a source of data and insights into specific historical periods. Ephemera such as old sheet music, postage stamps, trading cards, theatrical posters and even certain household items are being recognised as important cultural artefacts that not only reflected beliefs and social trends, including views of foreign countries, but in some cases influenced public perceptions themselves.

Take, for example, various collectibles dating from Burma’s colonial era (1824-1948). Old songs and sheet music conveyed powerful images of golden pagodas, swaying palm trees and demure women. Cigarette cards depicting picturesque ‘native’ villages and colourful ‘hill tribes’ made a deep impression in the West, particularly among children. Then, as now, postage stamps reflected aspects of Burma’s politics, history and society.

One field which has so far escaped scholarly attention, perhaps because it has not been a mainstream interest like philately, is phillumeny, or the hobby of collecting match-related items and other tobacciana. Yet, here too, there are opportunities to learn about Burma. Not only do the design, production and use of matchbox labels provide a glimpse into the culture of colonial Burma, but they also shed light on its economy and foreign contacts.

Read the full “Colonial Burma, history and phillumeny” article in the New Mandala by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Associate Professor, Dr Andrew Selth.