Strike anywhere matches are matches that are designed to ignite when struck against a wide variety of surfaces. As anyone who has experimented with these matches knows, the name is a bit of a misnomer; they work best when struck against rough, dry surfaces, and they will not literally ignite when struck against anything. Because they are easy to ignite, however, they can be somewhat dangerous, and in some regions they are restricted out of concern about spontaneous ignition or careless handling.
The earliest matches appear to have emerged in China, where people coated sticks with sulfur for the purpose of creating an igniter for fires. In Europe, lengths of cord that were saturated in flammable material were known as matches; these were designed for igniting cannons and guns, and such devices are now known as “fuses.” The modern friction match was invented in 1827 by John Walker, a British chemist, who realized that a mixture of certain chemicals would catch fire when struck against a surface. He got the idea of dipping a piece of wood in the mixture to create a self-contained lighting device.
These early versions were strike anywhere matches in the sense that they would ignite when rubbed against a variety of things. In fact, they were a bit volatile and sometimes ignited spontaneously, leading to the development of safety matches in the 1840s. Safety matches have flammable materials but no chemicals that will ignite them; in order to get them to light, people must strike them against a specially designed surface that will create a spark.
After the invention of safety matches, those that could be ignited on nearly anything became less common, although there were still plenty of uses for them. In the late 1800s, chemists developed a less volatile version, using a form of phosphorus that was not poisonous or explosive. Today, several companies still make strike anywhere matches for consumers who prefer the convenience.
Some matches are specially treated so that they will light when damp or in high winds. These are known as storm matches, and they can be especially useful. Many camping supply stores sell storm matches, and they are stocked in emergency kits in lifeboats and in other survival kits. They tend to be more expensive than other types of matches, but their versatility can be well worth the cost.