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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 3)

"I came across an old, pitted and not-so-great-looking standing ashtray and was reminded of my late father's swivel-top standing ashtray," recalls the 67-year-old Parsons. "I thought of all the other standing ashtrays I used to see in my early years, and I wondered what had happened to them. I thought that there must be quite a number of old, unique standing ashtrays in antiques stores and attics that could be restored and sold to cigar aficionados and cigar lounges." And so Parson's quest began.

On searches through antiques stores in the older seaport towns of Washington State, California and New England, he has found more than 28 "one-of-a-kind" standing ashtrays, mostly plated with brass, nickel or chrome. He spends up to a month dismantling, repairing, resurfacing and reassembling each one, pricing them from $280 to $950; the costliest so far is an Art-Deco-style chrome-and-powder-coat-painted "Club Car Special" from the old Pennsylvania Railroad.

Parsons notes that ashtray stands come in various heights and designs. Some with "swinging shafts" appear to have been made for use on boats. Others were designed to accompany certain furniture styles. Then there were those designed in a "feminine style, made with the ladies in mind. The amazing thing is, I haven't found two alike," Parsons notes. He is setting up a Web page to tout his wares.

Until the Museum of Tobacco Art and History in Nashville closed last year, its curator, David R. Wright, had been looking for top-quality free-standing ashtrays for years but had found them hard to come by. "Occasionally you'd see them for $75 or $100, if you were lucky, but the condition was not that nice," Wright says. "They were made up to the 1950s. They came in brass, bronze, cast iron, stainless steel or nickel, with a free-standing ashtray in the center."

Often such ashtrays featured a place for a box of matches, a humidor for cigars or cigarettes on the side, a loose ash receptacle made of glass, and sometimes an electric heating coil used to light a smoke. "Those were really popular in the 1920s and 1930s," Wright says, "but they've become difficult to find."

According to Wright, the museum had other types of ashtrays, mostly from nineteenth-century "companion sets" made for placement on desks or tables. These featured a ceramic or lead-glass jar or other compartment to hold cigars or cigarettes, a match holder, a match striker, sometimes a cigar cutter, and an ashtray.

"They were made of wood or ceramic materials, often in Eastern Europe, perhaps in Bohemia, and might contain a figure of, say, a monk going to the cellar to get beer, or a little girl feeding birds. We had probably 50 of them, all of different styles and themes," says Wright, who supervised the closing of the 16-year-old museum after its sponsor, UST Corp., parent firm of U.S. Tobacco, shut it down to use the space for offices. (The company's collection is in storage at its headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut; UST plans to donate parts of it to museums and other institutions.)

For all the ruminations in the museum and collectibles worlds about the impending demise and disappearance of ashtrays, they are not quite ready to be consigned to history. Craftspeople still make some incredibly exquisite ones specifically for cigar smokers.

Of course, modestly priced modern ashtrays continue to be sold in most premium cigar stores, where fancy handmade ceramic, marble or glass ashtrays are priced in the $35 to $65 range. And run-of-the-mill ashtrays remain popular souvenir items to purchase--or pilfer. (We certainly don't advocate the latter, but tourists will be tourists.)

For example, should you have elected to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1898 Spanish-American War by going to Philadelphia's old Navy Yard to tour the USS Olympia, the last survivor of the 1890s "Great White Fleet" and the flagship of Admiral George Dewey, you could have picked up a commemorative Olympia ashtray for $2.99. And as the owners of Washington, D.C.'s Willard Hotel well know, guests have a penchant for swiping ashtrays. In 1987, the Willard removed its name from hotel ashtrays after 1,000 of them were pocketed in just three months, the hotel's spokeswoman, Ann McCraken, told The Washington Post. "I have a Willard ashtray," she added, "and I don't even smoke."

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