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Ashes to Ashtrays

As they disappear from Daily Life, ashtrays have Become Smoking Collectibles
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

(continued from page 1)

Soon she created a computerized database to compile the prices asked--and paid--for old ashtrays. During her cross-country search, she paid as little as 35 cents for Depression-era glass ashtrays or fairly recent glass ashtrays from obscure overseas hotels or Las Vegas venues, and as much as $250 for a beautiful Lalique-style item. In the course of her roaming, she sometimes found the same ashtray listed for $4 in one antiques mall and $25 in a mall elsewhere. In a few instances, she came up with 150 different prices for the same ashtray.

In Wanvig's book, the prices listed represent the average for each ashtray, once she eliminated unconscionably high or abnormally low prices. In his review of her book, Tony Hyman judged Wanvig's pricing of the ashtrays consistent with his own experience, although he considers the prices for the "plain ones" a bit high.

Wanvig classifies ashtrays by the materials from which they are made: glass, metal, marble, ceramic, and so on; by the period in which they were produced: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the 1950s, etc.; and by type, such as "functional" (those made, however beautifully, simply for the purpose of depositing an ash), "advertising" (for beverages, tires, hotels, restaurants, etc.), and "novelty," which she gamely notes has "unlimited" subject matter. These include ashtrays in the form of animals, shoes, hats, household fixtures--just about anything you can imagine (even bathtubs, toilets and bedpans).

Although some ashtrays, featuring mini-cigar holders and wide cigar rests, clearly were intended for use by cigar smokers, others were made only for cigarettes. The latter type may feature "snufferettes"--little holes into which a cigarette can be snuffed out--or cigarette-dispensing mechanisms. The majority of ashtrays, however, were designed to accommodate cigars, cigarettes or pipes.

Yet, ashtrays need not be made only by ashtray manufacturers. Many have been crafted by some of the most famous names in fine personal and household accessories. Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Spode, Hummel, Lalique, Steuben, Haviland, Rosenthal, Delft, Limoges, Staffordshire and Noritake have all produced ashtrays. Ashtrays have been created out of every sort of material, from precious metals such as sterling silver to brass, bronze, copper, chrome, aluminum, lead, enamel, pewter, glass, ceramic, porcelain, soapstone, chalkware, wood and plastic.

While Wanvig's book contains a few ashtrays that have commanded sums as high as $275 to $350, most of the prices listed in an updated edition that was due out in September are surprisingly modest, with many under $50. Ashtrays advertising beers are the most common, fetching $5 to $35. Ashtrays from some legendary, long-gone New York and Hollywood nightspots and eateries seem quite reasonable. A beige ceramic Stork Club item featuring blue lettering and a drawing of its trademark bird is priced at only $55. A glass Brown Derby and a ceramic Toots Shor are priced at $23 and $18, respectively. On a less rarified note, a 1930s glass ashtray for Howard Johnson Ice Cream Shops and Restaurants is $25.

The oldest ashtrays in Wanvig's collection date from the 1880s--about the time the word "ashtray" itself entered the lexicon. Her research indicates that the entry "ash pan" first appeared in an 1857 English dictionary and was defined as a small receptacle for tobacco ashes. Usually these ash pans were shaped like a cup and had no rests for cigars. Thirty years later, a subsequent edition of the same dictionary referred to an ash pan as an "ash-tray," and the word thus became part of our language.

Winston Churchill used just such an 1880s ashtray-- small, with no cigar rests--in London's underground War Rooms during the Battle of Britain.

Other sources suggest ashtrays existed long before the English word for them was commonly used. Chuck Thompson, a Houston collectibles expert and editor of the annual ashtray collectors' directory, Ashtray Collectors Connections, has a 1992 catalogue published by an antiques dealer in Brussels, Belgium, that features a photograph of an elegant silver ashtray, circa 1830, in the form of a stooped, gnome-like figure 6 1/2-inches high, with a match holder on his back. He is leaning on a cane, tipping his top hat (the brim of which serves as a cigarette or small cigar rest), and standing beside a round container for holding additional smokes. It was created by the French artist Travies and was valued in the catalogue at $1,400.

As ashtrays became more popular, they began to reflect the fashionable style of the day, be it the ornate, 1890s elegance of the Victorian era, the undulating lines of early 1900s Art Nouveau, or the brisk Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s.

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