As Smoking Fades, Vintage Ashtrays Are Collectible
Time to face facts. Smoking is, (as if you needed to be told), no longer glamorous. But once upon a time, smoking on the silver and small screens served as a scene-setter and character-indicator. Think of sultry Marlene Dietrich, and other femmes fatale of the 1930s and 40s. Swirls of smoke from omnipresent cigarettes added to their mysterious aura. And, when Paul Henreid lit two cigarettes in Now, Voyager, then passed one along to Bette Davis, you just knew their romance would soon be heating up. Wreaths of smoke festooned the TV tube as well. Rod Serling smoked. So did George Burns and Groucho Marx. Even those fresh-faced young vocalists on Your Hit Parade, ("brought to you by Lucky Strike"), lit up with cheery regularity.
But that age has passed, and the smoke has cleared. Its artifacts, however, remain. In particular: ashtrays. Huge ashtrays. Tiny ashtrays. Ceramic, glass, metal, and faux-wood ashtrays. Many were the work of mid-century design "names", rushing to put their particular stylistic imprints on a very real consumer need of the times. Smoking was everywhere, and thus, so were the ashtrays. There were ashtrays for the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the bedroomeven the bath. Ashtrays were as much a part of home décor as were the coffee and end tables on which many held pride of place. As such, they needed to progress beyond their humdrum practical purpose, and provide harmonious or intriguing design accents. Thats why, years after the fact, retro ashtrays continue to lure collectorscollectors whod no sooner sully those ashtrays with cigarette stubs than they would set their own noses on fire. (Remember when that happened? It was a famed cigarette-themed episode of I Love Lucy. Wheres an ashtray when you really need one?)
Over the centuries, smoking has fallen in and out of favor, even before its health hazards were fully known. Englands King James decried smoking as a hazard to the brains (that was in 1603). Some years later, smokers in China ran the risk of decapitation, the result of an imperial decree. By the late-1800s, however, smoking had become recognized as a "gentlemans privilege". (Gentlewomen had to wait for the "Roaring 20s", when smoking, plus plenty of other previously-men-only prerogatives were loosenedalong with all those corsets.)
The first ashtrays really werent much to look at. In fact, when introduced around 1850, they were referred to as "ash-pans", cup-like containers without cigarette rests. The "ash-tray", much the same as we know it now, debuted in the 1880s, and made its first dictionary appearance in 1887, defined as "a dish for tobacco ashes".
Although overly-fussy Victorian ashtrays, and sinuously-sculpted Art Nouveau ones, have their fans, most ashtray collecting today focuses on those produced from the Art Déco through the Mid-Century Modern erasroughly, from the late 1920s through the 1960s. Smoking was then at its most socially acceptable, cigarette advertising was at its peak, and consequently, ashtray production was big business.
Light My Fire
Sometimes, it seem that the only people who didnt smoke during the 1930s were those in diapers. Although it was the Depression, consumers still craved at-home elegance, but at bargain-basement prices. They also craved tobacco.
Answering the call for inexpensively elegant housewares, (ashtrays included), were companies like the Chase Brass & Copper Co. Chase and its contemporaries crafted the look of luxury from such relatively affordable metals as copper, brass and nickel. Its most successful products, however, mimicked the sleek sheen of silver, but with a much less costly (and more "modern") chromium finish. Buyers quickly responded, opening their pocketbooks for a multitude of attractive, moderately-priced Chase Specialty items. Among them: buffet dishes, decorative accessories, barwareand all those ashtrays.
At one point during the 30s, Chase offered over 100 different "Smokers Articles", rivaling its listings for dining accouterments. The Chase catalog burbled that its offerings for smokers were "as finely done as expensive jewelry. Our new smoking articles are fresh and beautifully finished to the last detail, some heavy and important-looking in black and brass, some with many-colored etched covers."
As there are only so many things an ashtray can do (well, only one thing, actually), the inventive emphasis was on performing that duty more attractively and efficiently.
Among the Chase brainstorms: the "Riviera", complete with an operable numbered roulette wheel; the "Snuffer", with a golden fish serving as a cigarette extinguisher, and the "Pelican", shaped just as one might imagine. A tilt of the "Pelicans" bill, and ashes disappeared inside its tummy (presumably to be dumped out later, before indigestion set in).
In addition to ashtrays, the Chase smokers menu ran the gamut from cigarette lighters and cigarette boxes, to smoking stands, humidors, and cigarette-and-mint servers. Adding to their collectability: many Chase pieces were the work of industrial design icons, including Walter Von Nessen, Russel Wright, Harry Laylon, Lurelle Guild, and Rockwell Kent. Acting as independent contractors, most put their talents to work for a variety of companies; Guild, for example created almost the entire Kensington Aluminum giftware line.
Slightly racier were metal figural ashtrays, particularly those created for Frankart by Arthur von Frankenberg. An androgynous nude sylph adorns most Frankart smoking accessories, perkily perched on, or patiently holding, the ashtray itself. Since von Frankenberg "sculpted from life", (complete with props), his longtime model/muse Leone Osborne was evidently tireless.
Whether figural or functional, (or both), Art Deco metal smoking accessories seem to have danced directly off the screen, where theyve been occupied gussying up the set of a glamour-filled Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. And that, of course, was the idea.
Where Theres Smoke. . .
For those in search of a more down-to-earth smoking experience, companies like Syroco (Syracuse Ornamental Company) were happy to oblige, throughout the late 1930s and 40s. Although possessing the look of carved wood, Syroco novelties, (which included everything from tie racks and thermometers, to plaques and paperweights), were actually made of a wood composite. The compressed mixture of wood flour, waxes, and resins used to create "Syrocowood" meant that non-charring "wood" ashtrays were now a possibility. Many, however, came with their own glass insert dishes, for ease in cleaning, and to preserve their cosmetic appeal. While cavorting carved bears and cascading bowling pins made for clever Syroco ashtray themes, most in demand today are those created for special events, such as the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Ceramic ashtrays captivated consumers post-World War II, and continued to hold them in thrall throughout the 1960s. Think of a popular ceramist of the period, and chances are good that at least one ashtray made its way into his or her inventory. Hedi Schoop came up with a quaint bug-eyed bird. Georges Briard experimented with porcelain. Both Roselane and Gonder took brief detours into ashtray production. Harris Strong stepped away from his tile work long enough to create slab-like ashtrays decorated with primitive stick figures. And, Sascha Brastoff and Marc Bellaire churned out ceramic ashtrays by the truckload.
Brastoffs smoking accessories were populated by his wispily dreamlike "Star Steeds", "Jeweled Peacocks", and "Persians". Bellaires eerily muscled, eyeless "Beachcombers", and elongated, masked "Mardi Gras" revelers, were a less comforting, if more arresting presence. Each found favor, howeverand each fulfilled its dual mid-century purpose: ashtrays thoroughly useful, and at the same time, thoroughly, decoratively, modern.
My Old Flame
Most ubiquitous in the lineup of mid-century smoking paraphernalia, however, are glass ashtray (perhaps because they are inexpensive, and the easiest to clean). Even today, glass ashtrays continue to endure, lurking furtively in those increasingly-rare "smoking-permitted" areas. There are the clear, impressed-pattern or colored glass ashtrays of the Depression years. There are logo ashtrays, advertising long-vanished restaurants, bars, and service stations. And, at the top of the heap, there are ashtrays by Higgins Glass.
Specialists in fused glass, (an interior design captured between one or more glass layers), Frances and Michael Higgins soared to national prominence through glassware produced for Dearborn Glass Company from 1957 to 1964. The Higgins specialized in "useful" decorative housewares, and at Dearborn, the definition of "useful" seemed to correspond with "the skys the limit". The companys line of "higginsware" included nearly every possible variation on a homemakers dream, from entire tables set with Higgins dishes, to Higgins candleholders, vases, clocks, lamps, and elaborate, multi-tiered serving dishes.
And then, there were the Higgins ashtrays. These ranged in size from petite 4" "Dinner Dwarves" for the individual dining-table smoker, to whopping, freeform ashtrays ranging up to 15", evidently designed to service the entire neighborhood (or at the very least, a full bridge table). The everyday functionality of Higgins ashtrays was offset by a vivid rainbow of colors, often used simultaneously. Imaginative pattern names, such as "Stardust", "Sunburst", and "Buttercup" enhanced the essence of each design, ultimately enticing hordes of eager buyers.
Of course, some Higgins ideas proved more interesting in theory than in reality. "Gemspread", a lovely irregular geometric-shaped ashtray, featured a border studded with glass chip. Said Frances Higgins, "that was one of our handsomest patterns, but it didnt sell very well. Too hard to clean. The ashes got stuck in the chip." Another disappointment, "Little Girl", featuring an interior design of a perky flowered-hat-wearing youngster. Asked why it didnt sell well, Mrs. Higgins responded, "Well, just think about it. Would you want to put out a cigarette in that sweet little girls face?"
Although Higgins Glass continues to thrive today, ashtrays, no matter how eye-catching, are no longer on the Studios docket. Times change. As Frances Higgins once noted, "we dont make ashtrays anymore. You just cant sell them."
Down To My Last Cigarette
Fortunately, you can collect them. Vintage ashtrays, if no longer needed for their original use, can be imaginatively repurposed. Among the myriad of possible new callings: coasters; jewelry/trinket trays; change trays; flowerpot trays; business card/mail trays; key holders; TV-remote holders; eyeglass stands; fruit plates; popcorn/chip bowls; cheese trayseven soap dishes!
Or, you could just prop them up along a wall, arrange them on a mantel, or place them on an occasional table, where they probably started out in the first place. Enjoy the unique, and very time-specific artistry that went into their creation. Like smoke rings, the life-span of the ashtray was ephemeral. . .but the appeal endures.
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on mid-twentieth century design, including the upcoming "Postwar Pop". Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chase reference materials courtesy of Barbara Ward Endter (All photos by Leslie Piña, except as noted)
Donald-Brian Johnson is a nationwide columnist, and the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. His most recent, "Postwar Pop," is a collection of his columns.