What on earth is a spill, and why can’t Miss Matty get with the times?

By Madelyn Pospisil (MA ’19), Department of English, Kansas State University

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853) is comprised of vignettes from one small Victorian town, unique in that it is almost entirely inhabited—apparently—by women. Some of the women are widowed, but many of them are spinsters; the book shows us their daily lives and eccentricities. 

One of these spinsters, Miss Matty, is a very particular woman. She is also a proud woman, and “pique[s] herself upon…making candle-lighters, or ‘spills’ (as she preferred calling them), of coloured paper, cut so as to resemble feathers” (154). Furthermore, she makes them each Tuesday “of all the notes and letters of the week” (87). 

Her set routine and penchant for this paper craft intrigued me, especially because I had no idea what a spill was. The Penguin Classics glossary for this edition was a bit confounding, as the entry for candle-lighter read “spill of rolled paper” and the entry for spill read “tapers to light candles: see candle-lighter.” Not terribly helpful. So, I ventured out!

After much scouring, I found that spills were pieces of paper rolled or folded into cones. You’d dip one into the fireplace and carry it to an unlit candle to light it. Some people, like Miss Matty, got fancy with their spills, adding decoration or folding them in a pattern. 

“Fancy Spills,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1878

But while I was doing research, I actually became more and more interested in why it was so hard to find out what a spill was, and what that might mean to have a character so invested in them. 

The first reason why it’s difficult to learn about spills is that there’s more information out there about spill vases. This makes sense—it’s kind of obvious really—spill vases were made out of glass or porcelain or wood or some other sturdy material. Spills were made out of paper and meant to be burned. They were, by definition, temporary. So of course it’s hard to find a picture or description of a spill—all of them were used, gone in an instant!

Second, as you may have put together, spills are essentially matches. We don’t have spills today because they were replaced and made obsolete by the more convenient invention. The first friction match was invented in the 1820s, and because of this, at first glance, it seems like Miss Matty is just sticking to an outdated tool—oh, classic old person, not adapting to modernity!

But I think there’s more to it than that, and it reveals something important about Miss Matty as a person. Talia Schaffer argues that by turning her letters and notes into tools to be burned, Miss Matty is un-writing her history and erasing the past. Maybe, but this strikes me as missing some of the point, or to be more precise, some of the process. More attention is given in the book to Miss Matty’s act of makingthe candle-lighters rather than her use of the candle-lighters, so I also want to linger there. 

Miss Matty’s intentional creation of spills stands in strong opposition to the production of matchs, which in the 1800s was dangerous, unhealthy, and exploitative.Workers at matchstick factories, on top of the usual hardships of factory work in the nineteenth century, were at risk of “phossy jaw,”caused by inhaling the white phosphorous required at the time for friction matches (it’s a gruesome disease where the jaw bone and teeth decay…I don’t want to get more descriptive for the sake of all our stomachs). 

Through her weekly routine, Miss Matty is doing more than just clinging to the old days or un-writing her past: she’s quietly engaged in a resistance. Because really, Miss Matty’s a Marxist. Matches were in the midst of becoming a fetishized commodity—where the final product is separated in the consumer’s mind from both the workers and the actual labor required to produce it.

This kind of fetishizing was happening in many industries at the time, but it seems to me that the match was especially conducive to that process. You don’t have to think about a match, not really—not in the way you might have to think about a dress because you have to get it tailored or have to repair a tear. You use a match once and that’s it! A match is just as temporary as a spill, but you don’t have to make a match. It just appears, and you use it, and then it’s gone. They even have a deceptively simple appearance—how hard could it be to make a match?? But, as discussed above, it was not only hard, it was dangerous. 

Miss Matty spends precious time crafting an artful, waste-free spill. They’re beautiful and they give a new purpose to paper that might otherwise be thrown away. She’s even careful about using them—our narrator, Mary Smith, thinks that Miss Matty is economical about her candles (preferring to just light one per night), but I think that Miss Matty is mainly economical about her spills. Miss Matty acknowledges and respects her spills’ temporariness by using them to light candles only when necessary. She never takes the tool for granted, perhaps because she’s made it by hand, perhaps because she knows most people do. Miss Matty’s spills are not commodities, and they can’t be fetishized. She invests in the integrity and materiality of her spills, and by doing so, she resists the consuming industrialization of the time.

Earlier in this post, I said Miss Matty is proud. It seemed that way, with her insistence on this outdated weekly craft. Now, I think she’s wonderfully careful, and even a little bit radical. 

Works Cited

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. Penguin Classics, 2005. 

Heydt-Stevenson, Jillian. Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. 1st ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Schaffer, Talia. “Craft, Authorial Anxiety, and ‘The Cranford Papers.’” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2005, pp. 221–239.

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