Nicotine nostalgia:  An autobiography in ashtrays 


Once upon a time it was tobacco that told your life story. A cigar if you sought success, or found it, even briefly.  A pipe for contemplation or peaceful philosophizing in an armchair.  The cigarette that created Marlene Dietrich behind the veil of smoke, or Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. (They might snuff out the Camel or Chesterfield or Lucky Strike or Old Gold before finishing it; it bothered my thrifty father.)   

But I’m more focused at the moment on the dish into which you smashed the cork-tipped smokes (we had no respect for mentholated) and tracing the history of the ashtray in the houses and chapters of my personal progress. So here goes: 

It seems that there was a stand-up contraption given to my parents on the occasion of their wedding in 1926. It moved from their first residence to their second house (where I still dwell), on the East Side of Providence.  It was a gift from Sophie Tucker!  The famed singer, comedian, actress and radio personality was living in Hartford, Connecticut, and I don’t quite know why she felt like honoring Moe and Betty with a thing inspired by Greek column designs.  It held a basin with a ball and chain, so you could crush out the smoking tip before letting the butt fall into the ash heap inside the column. 

When my elder brothers learned to imitate their – our – dad and take up packs and their companion matchbooks, they would gather around that fancy ashtray and lay out their plans. 

If either of my siblings was not at home, it would be up to me to entertain guests ... always around that contraption.  It also had little clamps to hold matches.  No, we didn’t have the “Aladdin lamp lighters” that graced fancy parlors; we puffed away in a little knotty pine “den” that faced the backyard.

The second ashtray: A copper tray with curved corners and embossed Greek masks of comedy and tragedy, the grin and the sad frown. You could rest your cigar or knock out the Briggs from your pipe – curved maybe, mahogany, or perhaps ivory – upon that dish.  There was also a pewter variation with an etched abstract design at its center.   

This takes me through public school, before my departure for my Ivy League life and its attendant travels, voyages, pilgrimages.  I brought back ashtrays as mementos for my family.  A few were from Paris.  In one, a student with a long scarf is waiting to walk around and into a circular “Napoleon” – a ‘urinoir’ then common, especially in student neighborhoods. I thought this might amuse and surprise – and maybe slightly shock – neighbors who might drop by via the front or side doors for a nice nicotine spell.   

I have to admit that I pocketed a pub ashtray that advertised the trademark of a common continental aperitif – St. Raphael, as I recall.  I brought that back from the area around the Sorbonne.  I also purchased a proper ashtray, with the image of a miniature French dog – no, not a poodle, but a toy greyhound surrounded by fleur-de-lis.   

I guess I’m about ready to close this account, but wait! What happened to that first ashtray?  I gave it to my brother in Newport, and maybe his daughter threw out the nasty thing, partly to discourage her dad from smoking.  But I wanted to use it to illustrate a story, and so I asked my bro to try to remember it and evoke it with his magic pen – a talent I had often relied on to add some humor and zest to my memoirs.  He came through, and I add that image to this collection.   

I gave up all forms of tobacco half a century ago and more.  It was the day they were giving out free packs on the steps of The Arcade, in Providence, and I thought, “If they’re pushing them on you, it ain’t for our sake, but for theirs, to hook you – and I’m not a fish.”  So I stopped then and there, forever, and I’m still around.  So far.   

I’m writing this tale not for any purpose good or bad, but just for the fun of it. I could write about the pins on my lapels, my caps, sneakers, neckties, scarves, cups and cars, and narrate the progress of my life and career, so be glad I stopped at this account of ashtrays, once the center of social life in America. Cigarettes were 25 cents a pack back then, and you didn’t have to toss the butt out the window of your car – just crush it out in the built-in ashtray in your vehicle, please.

There is a seldom-read Aesop fable about a woman who finds a bottle in a river, smiles, and treasures it; the illustration and moral of that odd tale state and show, “What pleasure it is merely to remember the instruments of one’s past!”

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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