An interview with a collector: Eldon Baldwin

I am happy to start a new series of posts in form of interviews with lighter collectors around the world. I am starting with Eldon Baldwin a US citizen who not only has a stunning collection of lighters but also the expertise in making wonderful pictures of his finds. Enjoy!

Your lighter collection owing to your excellent photographs is quite famous among the world. What is the story behind it? 

For me, it is a melding of two passions. I found my first vintage lighter at a flea market when I was 16, a sterling silver arm lift lighter made in Mexico during the 1940s about the size of a half dollar.  Up to that point, I'd only been exposed to Bics and Zippos and the idea that a cigarette lighter could be anything beyond a utilitarian means of lighting a smoke was a revelation.  I fell in love with the uniqueness of the lift arm design. Its craftsmanship and durability was in stark contrast to the disposable and generic flip-top lighters sold in most convenience stores. That little silver lift arm was a work of art to me, a memento of a time in history when quality, elegant design, and affordable cost were not mutually exclusive concepts.  It set me on a path of seeking lighters everywhere: at local flea markets, antique shops, thrift stores, et al. This before was the internet and I didn't know books about vintage lighters even existed.  So for me, every lighter was a new discovery.

Coming to the hobby as a young smoker, of course I wanted to use my new acquisitions and I've been learning to fix lighters as long as I've been collecting them.  At the same time, my interest in art was just beginning and I was experimenting with mixed media painting and sculpture.  I learned the basics of B&W photography a few years later in college. In retrospect, I realize these parallel interests have followed me into adulthood and converged.


Your collection is for sure very diverse. Can you give us an estimated number of lighters you possess? Is it expanding so dynamically as in previous years? And what is your major source of lighters?

Really I can only guess.  I'd estimate my personal collection is somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 pieces.  The number of lighters I possess is a lot higher, maybe 50,000 if you were to count every single broken piezo and Ronson/Zippo clone.  I'd like to think I've grown a little more discerning with age, but I'm still a very active collector and love the "hunt" for new finds.  Of course, the internet is where I buy the most these days.  As the depth of my collection grows, it is getting a lot harder to find lighters I don't already have at flea markets around Baltimore.


When you’re looking for lighters, do you look for specific models? And what’s been your most exciting lighter finds?

I'm a very undisciplined collector, which partially explains why my collection is so extensive.  I buy poor-condition and/or incomplete pieces for research purposes and possible restoration.   I'll buy a cheesy inexpensive novelty lighter if it makes me smile.  I have a few pieces I've bought because they were so ugly, I had to have them!  On the other hand, I also have some incredibly rare pieces as well.  This sterling silver Hahway table lighter, cigar-cutter and ashtray combo is a current apple of my eye.


Have you ever thought about establishing a private museum on lighters? Your photographs could easily be used for an on-line museum I assume.
Absolutely!  I've been working on just such a website project for the last few years. Unfortunately, my aspirations for the site exceed my limited technical capabilities, so progress on the site development has been slow. I think I've finally found a reliable programmer to create the data management system for the site and we are slowly making headway. I hope the site will be ready to launch this fall.


What is your collection for you personally? What is your dream connected with it?

Lighter collecting began as a hobby and evolved into something Broader that encompasses many of my interests:  research, writing, restoration, photography and other forms of creative expression.  Accurately knowing when a lighter was produced, who designed it, what made it unique, where and how it was manufactured are all details I find fascinating.  I try to keep my collection organized so it is useful for reference, that's a fun challenge unto itself. I suppose my dream would be for my collection to stay intact beyond my lifetime and become part of a permanent exhibit of vintage cigarette lighters at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. If you're gonna dream, why not dream big?


It might be a difficult question but what is your favorite category of lighters? Could you also name your five favorite lighters in your collection?

Lift arms and variations of the Marcel Quercia Briquet de Table Perfectionné design are probably my favorite lighter styles.  These were two of the first 'unusual designs' I discovered as a kid at the flea markets  and they're still the styles I seek most passionately. I have an ever-growing herd of animal lighters too, especially figural table lighters.

Picking favorites is a lot tougher.  I really don't have a true "Top 5"; maybe a "Top 50" wouldn't be so hard to pick.  To make this easier for me, here are five of my favorite American table lighters in no particular order: Marathon Bridge and Rexlite lift arms, the Brown & Bigelow Pull-Chain, Guinn cigar lighters, and the Capitol.


Can you give novice lighter collectors any hints regarding collecting lighters and photographing them?

The best collecting tip I can offer has been shared by many experienced collectors before: Learn about what you love to collect.  The more you know about a lighter, the more you can appreciate its history, provenance and value.  At least for me, the joy of lighter collecting it two-fold:  the excitement of the hunt, then the quest to learn about the new find.

A couple of photography tips for lighters come to mind.  Avoid using a flash.  A tripod makes it a lot easier to compose shots and fine tune the lighter placement to reduce distracting reflections.  Natural sunlight is easiest to work with, especially with lower quality cameras and personal devices.  If you are serious about taking nice quality photos, investing in an inexpensive light box will make photographing chrome lighters so much easier.

Thank you Eldon for your time. It was a pleasure to talk with you! I hope we may soon see your impressive collection of lighters at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.


More pictures and information about Eldon Baldwin can be found on his webpage!

eBay: Thorens Dog Desk Lighter, 1929

A beautiful Thorens Table/Desk Lighter was recently sold on eBay for a modest $350. The auction received 27 bids from 18 bidders. The wick desk lighter is a rare piece coming from the late 1920s. The lighter insert is a Thorens 'single claw' type that was manufactured between 1918 and 1935 in Switzerland. The gold-plated base of the lighter is very unusual - a Scottie dog is leaning against a column. Perfect design! 

And here some additional photos from the seller.

Advert: Lancel Briquets, 1928

This full-page black&white Lancel advertisement was published in October 1928 in a French magazine called L'Illustration. A nice example of Art Deco graphic design.