Light It Up!

Maybe one of the most important tools on the New Mexican frontier was the strike-a-light, known as an eslabón (link) in Mexico and chispa (spark) in New Mexico.  Dating from the time of the Romans, chispas are a highly effective fire starter when paired with a small piece of hard stone such as flint, chert, jasper, agate, quartz or chalcedony.  Made from high carbon steel, chispas took many different forms depending on their place of origin and the skill of the blacksmith making them. They range from very simple and utilitarian to highly decorative with etched designs, elaborate scrolls and “multi-tool” additions such as awls and screwdrivers. They were an important trade item and can take a variety of forms.

Chispas in the form of a C are believed to be French, while the U and V shapes are most common in New Mexico. Typically small enough to fit in a pocket, there were also slightly larger versions used for the home fireplace. People were so adept at using chispas that it is said New Mexicans could even light cigarettes with them. That’s a lot more impressive than a match struck on the bottom of a shoe or even a Zippo opened with a flourish. I really need to practice that move!

Daniel Goodman, Director of Education and Collections

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