History of Ashtrays and Smoking
by Nancy Wanvig
Americans in the 1950's smoked over 542 trillion cigarettes each year.
How did this come about? What is the future of cigarette smoking now?
And how does all this affect ashtrays? Smoking, in some form, was found in Europe at least by the 1500's. In 1603, King James of England declared smoking a filthy habit saying it was harmful "to the brains."
In 1638, China issued a decree threatening decapitation to all tobacco smokers.The Russians in power also deplored the habit. Offenders were to be deported to Siberia. After the Crimean War in 1853, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes became popular among the British and French soldiers who adopted the habit from the Turkish officers. About that time, hand-rolled cigarettes, using Turkish tobacco, were introduced in America.
By the 1900's the tobacco industry had grown, and soon became one of the major growth areas of the twentieth century economy.
In the 1880's it became socially acceptable for men to smoke cigarettes, but it was not until the late 1920's that smoking gained acceptance for women. Also, about this same time the cigarette became the most popular form of smoking tobacco. Early brands of cigarettes came in colorful packages with magnificent designs. As smoking increased, the ashtray made its appearance on the scene. In 1857, according to an English dictionary, the "ash pan" appeared as a new word. This was usually
shaped like a cup, with no rests for cigars or cigarettes. However, in 1887 the same dictionary referred to the ash pan as "ash-tray",and thus the name became known. Soon ashtrays were designed for different uses. There were small individual ones for the dining table, larger ones for the
parlor, fancy ones for the ladies' boudoir, and practical ones for the kitchen. Artistic styles in vogue at the time also influenced the style of ashtrays. The Victorian style, with its ornate decoration, was
very popular in the late nineteenth century. This soon gave way to Art Nouveau, with its flowing lines and graceful decorative themes. Art Deco appeared during the 1920's and 1930's. Angles, bold colors, and new materials, such as chrome and plastics, became popular and played an important role in the Art Deco movement. Later, more conservative metals, such as tin, appeared on the market. During the Great Depression years in the United States when people could not afford to
entertain outside the house, the game of bridge became very popular. Soon special ashtrays were designed for this and other card games. Promoters also used ashtrays with advertising on them as free premiums.
(Photo: Commemorative, decorative ashtray manufactured 1935 (photo 2011)
Doctors, hospitals, schools, and insurance firms all placed ads on them.
Even artists designed them. Soon all kinds of styles and materials were used. And many of these ashtrays were beautiful and expensive.
Other needs also led to new types of ashtrays. New models were designed for smoking while driving a car, and some were for smoking in bed. There were magnetic ashtrays for cars, beanbag ones for
uneven surfaces, ones with candles for bedside, and as money became more plentiful in the 1940's, ones for Christmas and other holidays. People put ashtrays in every room and on almost every table.
(Photo: AshLoud V1.)
Companies specialized in the manufacture of them and unique ashtrays were patented. Now, many companies have passed no-smoking rules at work, and many states have no-smoking laws in public places. There are even laws to protect people from second-hand smoke. Anti-smoking
campaigns and medical support to help people stop have definitely reduced the number of cigarette smokers, and obviously this influences the manufacture of ashtrays. Plain glass ones are still available, and many of the better department stores carry crystal ashtrays, especially at Christmas. But the interesting and lovely ashtrays from the first half of the twentieth century are no longer being made. This part of Americana belongs to the past.
~ Nancy Wanvig