A tinderbox is a small container containing flint, firesteel, and tinder (typically charcloth, but possibly a small quantity of dry, finely-divided fibrous matter such as straw), used together to help kindle a fire.
Tinderboxes fell out of general usage when matches were invented.
In prehistoric times flint and pyrites might be used, and flint and steel from the iron age onward. If necessary any suitably hard rock, such as quartzite, may be substituted for flint. The flint is chipped to provide a sharp edge suitable for striking with the steel. The firesteel is simply a piece of tempered carbon steel (as it is difficult to obtain sparks using this method with ordinary iron or stainless steel), often formed in a "D" shape so it can be looped around two or three fingers for striking.
The charcloth is fabric made from vegetable fibre (e.g. cotton, linen, or jute) which has previously been charred via pyrolysis, giving it a low ignition temperature and slow burning characteristics suitable for use as tinder. The sparks (actually pieces of burning steel broken off by the harder flint) would ignite a very small fire as they fell onto the charcloth, the glow of which could in turn be used to ignite a wood splint, after which the cloth would be extinguished for further use. With skill, a fire could be started in a few minutes. In the early 19th century a rotating metal wheel was used to create the sparks with superior results, and the wood splint might have been dipped in sulfur (sort of a primitive nonstriking match) for better results. The sulfur tipped matches were the results of household manufacture and were sold by "matchgirls".
In the 18th century, tinderboxes were in common use.
A book from 1881 notes that in 1834 an editor had predicted that despite the advent of "lucifers" (matches), the tinder box would likely continue to be common in the household, but that in fact, by the time of writing, the tinderbox was rare, expensive, and seen commonly in museums of antiquities. A book from 1889 describes such a tinderbox, and says that the wear patterns on the flint are like those on ancient prehistoric flints in the collection.
In conventional usage, the term "tinderbox" refers to something that is so dry that it could catch on fire with the slightest provocation, perhaps even spontaneously like a forest fire. It is also used to describe a potentially volatile or violent situation. For instance, a prison in which there is unrest and the potential for a riot, said prison could be said to be 'a tinderbox of violence'.
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