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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 2)

With the recent restrictions on smoking, however, demand for ashtrays has declined. Many companies that once made them switched to other products or went out of business. Consequently, "the interesting advertising and lovely ashtrays from the first half of the twentieth century are no longer being made," Wanvig writes. "This part of Americana belongs to the past."

In addition to the century-old ashtrays whose value can range from $100 to $300, expensive and collectible ashtrays are found in many categories. These include various high-quality glass ashtrays produced by Newark, Ohio-based Heisey and Co., Lalique, and various Venetian manufacturers; Art Deco ashtrays decorated with miniature nude figures; tire-company ashtrays; and colorful figural ashtrays featuring eye-catching small sculptures of such figures as comic strip characters, classic advertising icons, airplanes, trucks and railroad locomotives.

Another category that commands high prices is novelty ashtrays. Some of these whimsical ashtrays come in the shapes of odd or engaging animals or humans, with either nodding heads or strategically placed holes that let smoke emerge through their open mouths, ears or noses. Others have American Indian or American West motifs. Still others are porcelain ashtrays made in Japan between 1891 and 1921 that bear the marking "hand-painted in Nippon," the name the Japanese then used to identify their nation on products sold overseas.

There appears to be a growing demand for tire-company ashtrays made in the shape of miniature tires. "Tire ashtrays are a great collectible because they have been on the antiques market for some time," Wanvig writes. Jeff McVey, a collector who specializes in these ashtrays, says the "Hope Diamond of tire ashtrays" is an Overman Cushion Tire Co. specimen made of brass instead of rubber, with a she-devil figure on the inside, valued at more than $600.

Jeff Koenker, another tire-ashtray aficionado, says that around 1915, when automobile manufacturing accelerated, the first tire ashtrays (or TAs) were introduced. These first-run ashtrays were made of glass or a metal/glass combination. By the 1920s, they were made of rubber with glass or metal inserts. During the Second World War, demand for rubber led to the temporary cessation of TA production, and many ashtrays disappeared into scrap-rubber campaigns. After the war, tire ashtrays again blossomed along with the automotive industry. In the 1960s, plastic replaced rubber as the basic material.

Most of the tire ashtrays prized by Koenker and similar collectors can be had for $40 or less. He classifies these ashtrays in four price categories--under $10, those still made by tire companies; $10 to $40, which he says account for up to 80 percent of the tire ashtray market; $40 to $100, for prewar ashtrays with attractive Depression-era glass inserts, clocks in the center, and advertisements; and over $100, pre-1920s tire ashtrays that rarely come up for sale.

Koenker has developed a Web site to extol the virtues of tire ashtrays and to lament that while some major tire companies still make what they now call "ad" trays, rather than ashtrays, their manufacture is on the wane.

Wanvig now estimates that she has a collection of about 5,000 ashtrays (and counting). But one variety not contained in her hoard are the tall, free-standing ashtrays that once were found beside chairs in homes and offices across America. "My husband, Tom, simply refused to let me collect them," Wanvig explains with a chuckle. "They're too big."

This restriction on her passion is a source of frustration for her, as free-standing ashtrays often sell in the $20 to $60 range. "They're very appealing," she says a bit wistfully.

One aficionado with no such constraints is William H. Parsons, a retired corporate financial officer from Yarrow Point, Washington, a Seattle suburb. A cigar enthusiast for decades (with a preference for Montecristos, Macanudos, Punch "and any Cubans I can get a hold of to smoke when I'm overseas"), he was browsing through a Napa Valley, California, antiques store in 1997 when he stumbled upon a free-standing ashtray. The discovery inspired him.


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