A once-common item provides an illuminating look at Bethesda's past
Hey, buddy, got a match? Nah, I didn’t think so.
Not long ago, matches were everywhere, as were the matchbooks they came in. Walk into any restaurant, hotel, business or bank and they were there for the taking—along with toothpicks or mints—a form of advertising as well as a source of light. The matchbook covers often carried messages along with the name, address and phone number of the establishment. They were nice to look at, and fun to collect.
Then smoking became unfashionable, not to mention illegal in many public places in recent decades. Even “smoking sections” in restaurants were outlawed. The matchbook cover, in all of its often gaudy glory, went the way of the ashtray, which is to say gone.
But people collect everything, and matchbooks are no exception. Witness Greg Lund, who at last count had nearly 200,000 matchbook covers in his Bethesda home.
Growing up in California, Lund was introduced to matchbook collecting by a neighbor as a teenager. Lund wasn’t a smoker, but he was attracted by the artwork and the fact that matchbooks could be found everywhere—for free.
He soon joined matchbook collector clubs and went from business to business asking for a “caddy” (50 books) of their matches, one to keep and 49 to trade. His oldest matchbook covers date back to the World War I era; his most recent are from 1972. He has them sorted into 292 albums and organized into categories.
“The appeal is the pure beauty of the artwork,” says Lund, 59, who works in food service at Lockheed Martin’s Bethesda headquarters. “My heart races when I am looking at my 1930s-era covers with the stunning, hand-drawn artwork.”
Take his “girlie” collection, 20 binders full of matchbook covers, many with art by Alberto Vargas, the Peruvian famous for his paintings of pinup girls, and by George Petty, who drew his own glamour girls for Esquire and other national magazines.
Lund has binders of matchbook covers devoted to gas stations, auto dealers, diners, Holiday Inns, world’s fairs, trucking companies, buses and taxis.
He has match covers with his last name, and match covers with his first name. He has pages of matchbook covers from all over the country that say “Nite Owl” or “Owl Cafe.” He has 32 covers from Kit Kat Clubs alone.
And then there are the matchbook covers that depict Old Bethesda, referencing a time and places that have passed.
The covers comprise a small part of the Lund collection—just 32 pages with 187 matchbook covers—but they provide a glimpse of the institutions patronized by generations of Bethesda area residents, places that mostly never made it into the 21st century.
Restaurants, in particular, have come and gone, their spaces repurposed: Mandell’s Corner Beef House (“A new idea in Old Fashioned Hospitality”) at 7800 Wisconsin Ave. is now Union Hardware; China Coral (“House of Chinese Seafood”) at 6900 Wisconsin Ave. is now the site of the new Bethesda post office; Porto Italiano Ristorante at 7130 Wisconsin Ave.—which provided “Nightly Entertainment,” according to its matchbook cover—is now Joseph A. Bank, a place that’s entertaining only if you enjoy shopping for men’s clothes.
The matchbook cover for The Dinner Bell at 7615 Wisconsin Ave. doesn’t reveal when the bell ceased to toll, though its advice still rings true: “Good Food Is Good Health.” Since 1959, the address has evoked a different kind of belle as home to Claire Dratch, the bridal dress shop that originally opened four blocks north in 1948. Its phone number contains several of the same digits as The Dinner Bell’s.
Bish Thompson’s Famous Restaurant at 7935 Wisconsin Ave. is neither famous nor in existence these days. Benihana Japanese Steakhouse has taken over the space.
Some places have retained the same ethnic cuisine even as the names have changed. Peking & Hunan Café at 4613 Willow Lane (“next to farmer markets,” the matchbook cover says) became Moon Gate, another Chinese restaurant, and is now House of Foong Lin, which recently relocated from Norfolk and Fairmont avenues to make way for a 17-story apartment building.
Of course, some brand names remain, if not at the same location. The Tastee Diner (“The Best of Food Properly Prepared…Home Cooking…Never Closed”) used to be at 6664 Wisconsin Ave., now the site of a Bethesda Fire Department station. Ever gritty but good, the Tastee today anchors the corner of Woodmont and Norfolk avenues.
O’Donnell’s (“Tang o’ the Sea Food”) opened its second seafood restaurant at 8301 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda in 1956, with “Free Parking” promised on the matchbook cover. It closed in 2001, and parking of any kind is hard to find in Bethesda these days, much less for free. O’Donnell’s survives at another location, in Gaithersburg. The old site is now the six-story Rosedale North, with apartments and retail space rented to tenants such as Ninotch, “an urban retreat” offering massage, tanning and skin care.
Then there was the venerable Bank of Bethesda, whose matchbook cover offered “Greetings” with holiday bells and the dates 1919-1953. The building, which replaced a blacksmith’s shop at Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, is still used as a bank, but it’s now a branch of SunTrust.
Beall’s Foods (“Choice Groceries/Fruits—Vegetables”), which bore an old local family name, was at 7750 “Georgetown Road.” Its matchbook cover shows a skimpily clad woman with the label “A Clothes Call,” totally unrelated to food but considered eye-catching in prefeminist times. The phone numbers are “Wis. 7890-7891-7892,” a named exchange with no area code, hinting at its vintage. The address, near the intersection of Wilson Lane and Arlington Road, is now M&N’s Pizza.
Of course, Bethesda has long offered places to stay, too, as the matchbook covers reveal. Among them: the InTown Motor Hotel at 6800 Wisconsin Ave. (at the corner of Bradley), now the high-rise condo Adagio, and the Bethesdan Motor Hotel at 7740 Wisconsin Ave., today the Bethesda Court Hotel, “an elegant sanctuary of old-world charm,” according to its website.
On the northern edge of downtown, there was the Governor’s House at 8400 Wisconsin (at Battery Lane), or as it was also called then: “U.S. Route 240…On the doorstep of everything in Washington, D.C.” The matchbook cover bears the Maryland state seal and a color photograph of the hotel, circa 1960. It became the Clarion Hotel, which was demolished in 2007 to make way for high-end condos that were never built.
Two years ago, the large vacant block was purchased for $29.3 million by local developer StonebridgeCarras and Walton Street Capital of Chicago, with plans to build 359 rental units and a 55,000-square-foot Harris Teeter on the ground floor. Ground-breaking was to take place this spring, with completion in 2015.
It seems unlikely that the new development will give away matchbooks as part of its promotion. Swag has come a long way since the light-’em-up days. But then, so has Bethesda.
A frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine, Eugene L. Meyer lives in Silver Spring.