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Seven Lost Icons of Melbourne

No. 1 - Redhead Matches

This article was first published in an edition of the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter in 2007

A press release came across our desk recently. It begins - “Every Australian knows and trusts the Redheads brand. .”

In 1909 the Bryant & May company built a match factory in Richmond and the bulk of this red brick complex with its distinctive clock tower is still there today, if in a slightly altered form. Bryant & May attempted to create a civilised work environment. They built a bowling green for employees, installed gardens, had men’s club rooms and women’s club rooms where matchmaking of a slightly different nature took place.

  • Bowling Green
    Bowling Green
  • Gardens & tennis courts
    Gardens & tennis courts
  • Men's club rooms
    Men's club rooms
  • Women's club rooms
    Women's club rooms

At this time Melbourne had a number of employers who were attempting to set new standards in looking after their staff. Through the wars and depression years both Mac Robertson and Sidney Myer went out of their way to provide employment for their staff in tough times, while down at Warrnambool, Fletcher Jones was creating a model factory.

Until well into the 20th century, 'strike anywhere' matches were popular (for instructions on use watch any John Wayne movie). These were made from white phosphorous whose dangerous side effects could create ‘phossy jaw’ in factory workers. The newer safety matches which required a special striking strip on the box were made from (the much-less-dangerous-than-white) red phosphorous. In 1946 these matches with their red tips were launched under the name Redheads with a distinctive red headed lady on the pack.

By the 1990s Bryant & May had sold their operations and ownership, production (and profits) moved to Sweden. Redheads are now made by blondes. There seems no real reason for Australians to buy this ex-Australian product other than nostalgia. This is where the PR comes in. The press release begins - “Every Australian knows and trusts the Redheads brand. .”, uses the word “Australian” numbers of times and nowhere mentions the Swedish connection. Instead it diverts our attention to the human interest and nostalgia elements. It proposes a search for the original model who posed for the logo in 1946 and finishes by saying that in 2007 we should “Join the Australian public in remembering our heritage and light 60 candles to celebrate this momentous anniversary.”

Still, not all jobs have been moved to Sweden. It appears there is still work available for local PR agencies to convince the local punters that overseas products are still really Australian.

And judging by the mainstream media's enthusiastic and unquestioning promotion of their press release as ‘news’, a good and enthusiastic job they are doing.

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Long reads

Other articles in the series Seven Lost Icons of Melbourne:

Seven Lost Icons of Melbourne - overview