Historical Markers
Joshua Pusey Historical Marker
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Joshua Pusey

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
#11 N. Middletown Rd. (PA 352), Lima

Dedication Date:
March 27, 1993

Behind the Marker

An elderly Pusey in straw hat.
Philadelphia patent lawyer Joshua Pusey, circa 1895.
It might be fun to start a fire from scratch on the occasional camping trip. But the challenge loses some of its luster if you have to do it every day. In the early 1800s, Londoners still carried tinderboxes around with them. Charles Dickens complained that it could take half an hour to light your pipe on a damp day. By mid-century, gentlemen of distinction on both sides of the Atlantic carried ornate silver "match-safes" in their vest pockets that held volatile wooden matchsticks, aptly nicknamed "barnburners" or "Lucifers." Even in 1885, the average railroad smoker car arriving in Philadelphia each morning might well have been more rife with oaths than with actual smoke. It was Joshua Pusey, a frustrated Delaware County commuter with a penchant for cigars, who developed the ubiquitous matchbook and took the humbug out of lighting up.

Flexible Match Patent Drawing
Flexible Match Patent Drawing, #483.166, inventor Joshua Pusey, September 27,...
Pusey was a Philadelphia patent lawyer with the soul of a tinkerer. Born into a prestigious family in 1842, he had an upbringing typical of a young man of position: a private-school education followed by the quintessential finishing touch, an eighteen-month walking tour of Europe from Scotland to the Italian Alps. Arriving in Italy at the age of eighteen, he was appointed Acting Consul in Genoa.

Hearing rumors of an impending civil war, Pusey returned to the U.S. to sign up for military service, an act contrary to his Quaker heritage. His family persuaded him to take up farming in Pennsylvania instead, but that didn't last. Pusey soon enlisted in the marker Bucktail Regiment. Their first engagement, at the battle of Fredericksburg, was also Pusey's last. After a ball pierced his throat and tore away part of his jaw, Pusey was left for dead. At the end of the battle, under Confederate flags, the waterlogged Pusey pulled himself out of a ditch and crawled on hands and knees across the battlefield to a Union medic. He recovered with only a speech impediment, but wore a goatee for the rest of his life to hide the scars.

Pusey returned home to marry (twice), read for the law and father nine children, only four of whom survived his own death in 1906 at the age of sicty-four. An inveterate tinkerer, Pusey was fascinated by fire, and in the 1880s patented "Bengals," long paper torches with incendiary chemicals at the tips, used for parades and celebrations. Collaborating with one of his sons, who worked with Pusey at his law office in Philadelphia, Pusey in 1892 patented the most successful and long lasting of his inventions: the Flexible Match.

The father and son reportedly brewed chemicals over the pot-bellied office stove, meticulously cut strips of cardboard with office shears and affixed them to a paper base, which they impregnated with the same chemicals used on the match head. But neither Pusey had the time or inclination to perfect or mass-produce these items. And there were still kinks. Most importantly, Pusey placed the striker inside the matchbook, which meant that the matches could self-ignite when jostled. Three years later, he sold his patent to the Diamond Match Company of Barberton, Ohio, for $5,000 outright, and $5,000 per year to cover his continuing legal fees in patent infringement cases.

Two men working in an office, one seated at a desk and one seated in a chair next to the desk. A huge pot belly stove is in the room.
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Pusey and assistant (perhaps his son) in his law office, circa 1895.
Diamond made three innovations that dramatically improved public health and safety. First, it moved the striker to the outside of the matchbook so matches could no longer self-ignite or cause structure fires by being chewed into ignition by household rodents. It also raised the point of ignition by 100 degrees to make the matches less flammable. In 1911, Diamond patented a formula that substituted sesqui-sulphide of phosphorus for the poisonous white phosphorus.

This simple change eliminated the dreadful disease of "Phossy Jaw," which had become endemic among the women working in match factories in Europe and America. Induced by white phosphorus, "Phossy Jaw" caused incurable abscesses to fester in the jaws of the workers and could be stopped only by surgically removing the patient's jaw, severely disfiguring those who could afford and survive the radical procedure. Untreated, patients would die within eighteen months. Diamond generously relinquished rights to its patent on the new formula, enabling match companies around the country to safeguard the health of their workers.

Matches were only one of Pusey's many interests. In all, he took out thirty-six patents, including designs for a very popular crayon holder, a self-opening gate for horse-drawn carriages, a hydrogen lamp, a sash-fastener, an artificial toboggan hill, a ribbon-feed reverser for typewriters, and a coin-operated dispenser for opera glasses. Pusey also continued his legal work and spent the rest of his days in Maple Linden, a twenty-room mansion he built in Delaware County, where he remained as active in Quaker affairs as a former military veteran was allowed.
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