This really is a fascinating hobby. There's something for everyone in matchcovers. For example, I (your webmaster) am a History teacher...and the entire history of the U.S. for the last 100 years is chronicled in its matchcovers--World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, presidential campaigns, fashions, values, automobiles--it's all there! That's what got me hooked.
"Phillumeny," which is the technical name for the hobby, began when people started collecting matchboxes and matchbox labels in the mid-1800s. After the matchbook was invented in the 1890s, collecting matchcovers was added to the hobby. Today, over 100 years later, there are still distinct geographical differences in what is collected where. Collectors in North America focus mainly on collecting matchcovers (not surprising, since this is where the matchbook was invented and became most widely used). On the other hand, matchboxes and labels are still the main focus of collectors in most other areas of the world.
There are currently some 21 regional clubs in the U.S. and Canada, plus several specialty clubs, and at least another 19 clubs overseas in 14 different countries worldwide. Club dues typically run somewhere between $5-$10 per year.
Here in the U.S. and Canada, the clubs can be divided into three types:
There are many club bulletins issued throughout the hobby. Most offer the collector two big advantages--knowledge and auctions. The bulletins keep you abreast of what's going on in the hobby, hot categories, stories behind the covers, classified ads, etc. Many bulletins also carry a bulletin-auction with each issue. Most collectors subscribe to several.
The RMS Bulletin is the biggest and most comprehensive--32 pp., bi-monthly. The bulletins of the Specialty Clubs understandably focus on their own specialty categories. Those of the Non-Regional Clubs can cover anything, but on a smaller scale. The Regional Club bulletins typically focus mainly on topics and covers appropriate to their own specific locations, but they, too, cover general topics, as well as bringing you the latest announcements of upcoming activities across the country, and so on.
Most club bulletins run around 8 pp. per issue and are in black & white, although color inserts have become more common over the last few years. There are a couple of full-color bulletins, as well, but the hobby has already started offering electronic bulletins...and they're all in blazing color!
Specialty covers aside, covers come in three basic sizes (based on how many matches each carries):
Ref the 'striker' (the striking surface that you scratch the match across), there are two types of covers:
95% of all collectors carefully strip the matches out of the matchbooks and collect the covers only (the exception being those matchbooks which have artwork on the matches, themselves. Those are kept intact). Otherwise, covers should not be altered in any way (no writing on them, no cutting the strikers off, no gluing them in albums, etc.)
The covers are pressed flat and then put into albums. Although the standard album page used to be a pre-slit paper page that went into a 3-ring binder, most collectors now opt for plastic pages with pockets designed to hold the various sized covers, still in 3-ring binders.
Collectors collect by 'categories': Holiday Inns, Chinese Restaurants, Military, Midgets, Christmas, etc. Although most collectors start out as 'General' collectors (collecting all categories), most soon opt for more specialized categories only (finding that they just can't keep up with collecting 'all' covers!).
As with any other collectible hobby, there is a basic dividing line with covers between 'old' and 'new'. It's World War II....before is 'old'; after is 'new', although certainly not all 'old' material is sought after. In fact, most of it is just run-of-the-mill stuff. Perhaps a better dividing line would be 1937. That's when the match manufacturing industry switched to slightly smaller matchbooks for use in vending machines. With the Post-War covers, the more sought-after types are normally the traditional and momentary 'hot' categories: Girlies, Features, Military, etc. With Pre-War covers, though, the sought-after types are usually defined by particular manufacturers and footers. For example, all Crown Match Co. covers are popular; all Diamond covers with the "DIAMOND QUALITY" footer are relentlessly pursued; etc.
How do you get covers? New covers certainly aren't as plentiful as they once were, but there are already billions out there, so don't worry about it. Here are your main options: