Ashes To Ashes

40 years after the surgeon general's warning. the not-always-humble ashtray has basically gone up in smoke.

January 10, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

WARNING: This story was written by a smoker. Its contents may offend, or even sicken, nonsmokers, warning-heeders and others.

Forty years after the U.S. surgeon general first warned that cigarettes could cause cancer and other diseases, 46 million Americans are still smoking.

The number of ashtrays, meanwhile, has dwindled to about 11. Or so it seems.

Once, they were everywhere. In finer restaurants, clear glass ones garnished every table, omnipresent as salt shakers.

In taverns, plastic ones were always within arm's length, dotting the bar like lights on a runway. Usually, they were emblazoned with beer brand names - until advertising on ashtrays became politically incorrect, even for beer companies.

In workplaces they were, for many, a desktop essential, more vital than the stapler, right up there with the coffee mug.

Once, no respectable home was without a cache of ashtrays. Even homes without smokers put them out at parties, or when a cigar-smoking uncle came for a visit, reserving the fanciest for the living room coffee table - perhaps one shaped like a boomerang, or a blue ceramic featuring both waves and a leaping dolphin.

You could buy them almost anywhere, drugstores included. You could use them almost anywhere, including the doctor's waiting room. Children - now molded into vehement anti-smokers by first grade - once toted home ashtrays they'd made out of clay. Then again, that designation was given to almost any art project that didn't come out as planned: "It's an ashtray, Mom."

Behold the humble ashtray - while you still can. For that perfect combination of form and function, that faithful and uncomplaining recipient of our dangling ash, that final resting place of our stinky, toxic butts, is quickly becoming a relic of the 20th century.

The habit, for millions, lingers, but with smokers stepping outside - be it by choice, company policy, spousal insistence or city ordinance - ashtrays are going the way of 8-track tapes, rotary phones and typewriters.

"I see them as a vanishing icon," says Joe Leatherman, who, as owner of Fat Elvis, a Hampden antiques shop that specializes in all things "retro," tries to always keep a few 1950s-era ashtrays in stock, the more ostentatious the better.

Hardly anyone in this country makes them anymore. (Most are imported from India and the Far East.) Few stores sell them. (Crate and Barrel, as a matter of principle, stopped carrying them in the 1990s.) Many car makers have removed them from their new models. And stealing them from hotels and restaurants isn't the simple task it once was, because they are no longer there.

DISCLAIMER: Stealing ashtrays is illegal, and, keep in mind, many prisons have banned smoking.

The indoor ashtray is all but gone, replaced by a single vat of sand or cat litter-like granules, placed outside the door, into which, thank you very much, you may deposit your burning cigarette before you enter.

Among the newest generation of smokers, there are some who, while having smoked 10 years or more, have never owned an ashtray.

"They're disgusting," said Tanoa Pauly, flicking ashes into a basic round black plastic ashtray while waiting for her children at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. She and friend Krista Leary had found the only ashtrays at BWI - in the bar at C.K.'s, between the B and C piers. Smoking is prohibited in the rest of the airport.

When Pauly, 33, and Leary, 28, smoke at home in York, Pa., they step out to the patio, where, instead of using an ashtray, they toss their butts in a Maxwell House coffee can, then put the top on.

"We don't empty it," Leary said. "We just throw it away when it gets so full we can't stand to open it anymore."

Full disclosure

At this point it is only fair, lest anyone think the author is ridiculing Pauly and Leary, that I divulge my own cigarette smoking and disposal methods. I, too, am primarily an outdoor smoker (occasionally sneaking indoors during the cold), and discard my butts in a green marble ashtray on my patio.

At work, I squeeze in smoke breaks when I can, often heading to the "designated smoking area," where I put my finished cigarette in the "Smokers Outpost," an amazingly phallic-looking plastic tower, or in one of the sand-filled outdoor ashtrays provided. These breaks seldom interfere with the flow of my ...

(One moment, please.)

... work.

I have had many ashtrays in my life, both real and makeshift. The first was a milk bottle, hidden under my bed. I have also used mostly empty Coke cans. On occasion, I have absent-mindedly taken sips from these cans - a mistake that, oddly enough, is even more common with beer cans.

If you think that is gross, consider my sister who, according to my brother (also a smoker), once used her retainer as an ashtray. She has matured greatly since then. Now she uses kitchenware.

"They are little glass bowls, kind of," she said. "Pudding bowls, maybe. I don't put pudding in them unless I've washed them first."

It's a generation thing

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