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    The Matchbook: Tenderloin Historical Ephemera Project

    Through March 31 at the Tenderloin Museum

    Through the mundane act of picking up a matchbook and striking a match, one is transported to another place and time. The past is remembered through a pedestrian interaction with a tangible object. Matchbooks are emblems of local culture: accessible, utilitarian ephemera that functioned as the chosen form of advertising for small businesses in an era before plastic lighters and health concerns about smoking.

    These ritual objects exist at a fascinating intersection of material culture, local history and design art. Matchbooks and other local business ephemera are striking populist artifacts that serve as portals to places and people in a neighborhood’s past. The Matchbook: Tenderloin Historical Ephemera Project presents an illuminating new perspective on the Tenderloin’s often overlooked history, enriches the detail and depth of the neighborhood’s narrative and ignites the Tenderloin community’s historical imagination.

    This multi-faceted project encompasses the publication of The Matchbook: Vintage Matchbooks from San Francisco’s Tenderloin, an artfully designed history book of the Tenderloin featuring the matchbooks of local businesses and cultural institutions; The Tenderloin Ephemera Exhibition, featuring historical Tenderloin ephemera from the 1920s–1950s including glassware, postcards, menus, matchbooks et al.; and the first addition to the Tenderloin Museum’s permanent exhibit, The Matchbook Map Exhibit, featuring a searchable, interactive touchscreen map that connects matchbook imagery to historical information on the associated business and address.

    The visual language of the matchbooks broadcasts a rich local dialect, which took root in the Tenderloin’s many restaurants, bars, hotels and social clubs. Aesthetically evocative examples of this lingo abound, conjuring a rich, nuanced vision of the Tenderloin’s past.

    As art objects, these vintage matchbooks are visually striking representations of Tenderloin architecture or a cheeky synecdoche for good times to be had inside a given establishment. Whether emblazoned with minimalist typographic experiments, strikingly representative imagery, or an ingenious amalgam of design and illustration, Tenderloin matchbooks stoke the historical imagination.

    As physical artifacts, they provide a historical record of a business or particular address. But what’s more, these mass-produced and widely distributed tokens touched myriad individual narratives, belonging to people who walked the same streets and lived in the same buildings as the present Tenderloin community.

    While certainly eye-catching, these paper matchbooks were meant to be used, not to last forever. As such, The Matchbook: Tenderloin Historical Ephemera Project is a call to preservation for these evocative relics that are so prone to decay. In some cases, matchbooks are the only evidence that remains of long-shuttered Tenderloin businesses.

    By presenting an intimate, everyday perspective in an aesthetically appealing way, The Matchbook and accompanying exhibitions and programs make this history widely accessible, and promote preservation advocacy within the City, as thousands of people benefit from improved historical knowledge of a long-overlooked district. Preservationists of the future will be able to easily access information about specific addresses and buildings in the Tenderloin neighborhood, and the City’s public life is enriched by a deepened understanding of our shared history.

    Today, the tradition of creative, charismatic and often idiosyncratic promotional materials is one that continues amongst the local businesses in the Tenderloin. The Matchbook creates continuity and lineage between the Tenderloin of the past and the Tenderloin of the present.

    Related Programming

    Two related programs will take place this month at the Tenderloin Museum:

    Tenderloin Cocktail Culture

    March 21, doors open at 6:30 pm

    As San Francisco’s roaring vice district, the Tenderloin of the early 20th century figures greatly into the development of cocktail culture. Many of the bars, restaurants and hotels represented in The Matchbook: Tenderloin Historical Ephemera Project played a role in San Francisco cocktail history. Attend for a survey of the neighborhood’s historic bar culture and recipes from the innovators who shaped the modern cocktail landscape through a historical discussion, guided tasting and hands-on class led by Shana Farrell, author of Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community and Craft. The event will be in collaboration with the California Historical Society.

    Tenderloin Historic Ephemera Project Closing Reception

    March 28, 6–9 pm

    Celebrate the magic that is ephemera with the closing of the Tenderloin Historic Ephemera Project. This event is your last chance to see the temporary ephemera exhibit and the matchbook art exhibition Close Cover Before Striking: Alexander von Wolff. Artist von Wolff and ephemera collector and enthusiast Glenn Koch will be on hand to discuss their work and research. You are invited to bring your own ephemera collections for this one night only closing event. Bring your own ephemera from San Francisco’s past, especially the Tenderloin! The organizers are excited to explore the neighborhood’s collective memory as told through your mementos.

    For more information: