I was invigilating the other day along with a colleague from the Geology department. Jason was about half way through a book called The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus by John Emsley, so I flipped through it as I covered for him during a bathroom break for one of the students.
As you can see in the image above, I was immediately drawn to the “Bryant & May” text near the top of page 114. Upon noticing it, though, I realized that I really need to get a new hobby because I’m seeing Queen references everywhere these days.
The book itself was puzzling at first glance. It wasn’t clear whether it was a work of historical fiction, a non-fiction title for the chemistry buffs (like my colleague), or something else I missed. What was it about? Who were Bryant & May? So I photocopied page 114, took it home, and did a bit of research.
Bryant & May were early pioneers in the development of matches. Not just any garden variety matches but the kind that were waterproof and guaranteed to ignite even in high winds — not a small feat given the technology available in the mid-1800s. Their success, however, came at a high price because many of the factory workers (mainly women) developed a nasty disease called phossy jaw which, if left untreated (i.e., amputation) caused their gums to glow in the dark and their lower jaws would — to put it bluntly — rot away at the same time their internal organs were shutting down. To their credit, Bryant & May were also pioneers in addressing the disease and helping the victims.
Many of the original matchbooks and matchboxes that B&M produced are now valuable collector’s items with most being acquired by museums in Britain and elsewhere. To the right are two samples of such matchboxes that have tenuous but intriguing Brian May connotations to them due to the coincidental text and visuals (i.e., medals = six pence; “fire” = “The Fireplace”).
It would be very bizarre if Brian had collected Bryant & May boxes as a boy instead of his obsession with stereographic images he recently published in A Village Lost and Found.
One final bit of Bryant & May/Brian May strangeness . . .
Wikipedia has this to say about B&M: “Bryant and May survived as an independent company for over seventy years, but went through a series of mergers with other match companies and later with consumer products companies; and were taken over. The registered trade name Bryant and May still exists and it is owned by Swedish Match; as are many of the other registered trade names of the other, formerly independent, companies within the Bryant and May group.”1
So the trademark for Bryant & May apparently still exists, but there’s a British author named Christopher Fowler who’s written eight detective novels using characters named Bryant and May. Most likely, crime fighting is in a different ware category than matchbooks and toy models so Mr. Fowler is free to use the name combination for his sleuthing stories and he isn’t infringing on any copyright laws.
So if he can take creative license with B&M, so will I . . . here’s what I propose the next Fowler mystery should be called: Brian May – On the Loose. Actually, that would be funny if he did indeed write a novel about Brian May being on the loose. I’d buy it. The other collector’s item that would be cool if produced would be these Bryant & May Red Special matches. There’s an obvious marketing angle if I’ve ever seen one, eh?