National Lighter Museum

Odd Collections, People
on January 28, 2001

Ted Ballards lifetime fascination with lighters doesnt extend to using them. Hes never smoked. And a sign in the window of his National Lighter Museum in downtown Guthrie, Okla., reads: Thank you for not smoking.

Ballard, the owner and curator of the museum that houses about 17,000 lighters, says the museum in the town of 10,538 people has always been non-smoking.

But I will follow em around with an ashtray if I need to, just to get em inside.

Visitors lured inside will find thousands of lighters. Ballard says he can tell the story behind every one.

Like the lighter once owned by Ford Hathaway Christian, an engraver, trick roper, and friend of humorist Will Rogers. Christian would use the lighter to show prospective clients his engraving ability.

What makes it interesting is when you know the history behind the lighter, Ballard says.

Some were owned by entertainers like Perry Como, Jerry Lewis, and Bob Hope, who all gave lighters to friends and family to mark special occasions.

The lighter has progressed from the earliest flint and steel to modern butane lighters sold in convenience stores, says Ballard, who enjoys demonstrating his lighters and explaining the mechanics. He wont hesitate striking pieces of flint and steel together.

Mans first discovery was fire, and his first invention was a way to make it. Lighters are the most reinvented thing on the planet and the mother of science and technology, he says.

Limited space in the century-old, one-room building allows the display of just 7,000 of his lighters, with 10,000 locked up. Ballard and his wife, Pat, are moving the museum to a larger location south of town where they plan to display the entire collection.

Ballards lighter collection started with a flicker.

My grandfather gave me two lighters and a bag of coins when I was about 6, he says. The lighters were Regens, a brand popular in the 30s and 40s. You had to squeeze em to make em light, and my grandfather didnt like that, says Ballard.

I was just an accumulator, says Ballard, 67, who at one time also collected toys and guns. His fascination with the mechanics of making fire led him to eventually focus solely on lighters.

A lot of it (the collection) was given to me, says the former television salesman and technician, who took lighters and other items as a down payment for TVs when folks were low on cash.

The eclectic collection ranges from musical lighters from the 1940s, like the one that plays the theme song from Kraft Music Hall, to detonator lighters that use whiskey and a 1974 Ronson lighter that uses a purified form of rocket fuel.

One of Ballards rarest and most unusual lighters was created by a Russian jeweler with the design of a boars head attached to an actual boar tusk.

Lighters in the form of typewriters, guns, cameras, cars, airplanes, and soldiers are shown.

Many lighters are pocket lightersoften with a logo or brandthat were distributed free as promotional items during the 50s, 60s and 70s by nearly every major company.

The museum even features a lighter commemorating the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

When a lighter has a name, date, and event engraved on it, it becomes a historical document, he says.