Butt, Who Knew!

This year I saw two of the movies that were up for a fair share of Oscars. Those were Maestro and Oppenheimer, which won Best Picture along with a slew of other Oscars. I was anxious to see Maestrobecause of all the scuttlebutt about the prosthetic nose Bradley Cooper wore in his portrayal of Leonard Bernstein. Minutes into the film I forgot all about the nose; in fact, I completely forgot that was Bradley Cooper on screen.

As for Oppenheimer, I wanted to see that because during a trip to New Mexico several years ago, my sister and I indulged my brother-in-law’s desire to visit Los Alamos. When he suggested it as a day trip, we rolled our eyes at the thought of devoting a day to science. But, considering that John had always been a good sport about our endless shopping excursions, we agreed it was high time we did something he wanted to do. By day’s end, Ginny and I had to sheepishly admit that our trip to Los Alamos had been fascinating; the scenery was gorgeous, and we especially enjoyed visiting the historical society’s museum. I even bought a book that had been written by the wife of one of Los Alamos’s first employees.

You can’t watch either movie without taking notice of the incessant number of cigarettes that are smoked. Everyone I know (of a certain age) who saw one or both movies (as well as television shows such as Mad Men and Truman Capote and the Swans) commented that it was strange to relive that time period. Back in the day, people smoked cigarettes everywhere … in restaurants, bars and offices, as well as on trains, buses and planes. It was a fact of life; nobody gave it much thought. Now, it just seems so foreign to see that portrayed on film. Heck, even when sheriff Andy Taylor lights up on TV, it’s kind of unnerving to see.

Oddly enough, the focus on cigarettes in movies and television – and a love for mid-century modern décor – has created a new collecting craze. People are going bonkers over ashtrays. When I think back to my childhood, I recall that ashtrays were a standard accessory on every coffee table, whether the residents smoked or not. It was simply seen as hospitable to have an ashtray at the ready for guests who smoked. (My dad was dead set against smoking, probably because he helped with the tobacco harvest on his family’s farm in North Carolina as a child.)

I also remember the elaborate ashtray my grandfather had beside his favorite chair. We were not allowed to sit in the chair or touch the ashtray stand that was made of chrome and amber-colored glass. He had his things – pipe, cigars, chew and a disgusting jar – arranged on it just so. (Which is probably why my mother hated being around smokers.)

My sister also reminded me that school and scout art projects were often centered around making ashtrays as gifts for parents. That prompted me to think of a green ceramic ashtray I made in scouts. My mom hung on to it for years and used it as a catchall for paper clips, thumbtacks, etc. It was among the stuff I kept after she died. I also have one that my mom had a folk artist paint.

Sue’s childhood handiwork

An article in The Washington Post clued me in on the collecting craze. The article quoted Mari Corella of eBay, who shared that “Tens of thousands of vintage ashtrays sold on eBay in North America in 2022.” She also reported that sales in the early months of 2023 (when the article appeared) were eclipsing those of the previous year. Apparently, collectors are scouring everything from garage sales to flea markets in search of vintage ashtrays that sell for a few dollars. You’ll pay more at places like antiques shops and on sites like eBay, Chairish and First Dibs, which tend to specialize in higher-end ashtrays, hence, according to Corella, you’ll see designs from “Hermes, Murano glass artist Alfredo Barbini, and American potter M.A. Hadley.” Ashtrays with logos pertaining to bars, restaurants, casinos, hotels and resorts (especially those long closed) are also in demand.

Of course, the source for all things mid-century modern in Lancaster is Space (24 W. Walnut St.). I went in to scope out the inventory and owner Jesse Speicher confirmed that ashtray mania has been a thing for the last few years, adding that they are, indeed, difficult to keep in stock. He pointed me to the few crystal and colored glass ashtrays he currently had on hand. I also found a kitschy one that resembled a coconut shell and bore the legend “Palm Springs, California.”

So, how are people upcycling ashtrays? According to Jesse, they are being used to hold keys, rings and other small items. The eBay spokesperson pointed out that mid-century ashtrays also make great coasters, candle holders and candy dishes, thus leading to new monikers such as “catchalls” and “trinket trays” among others.

Of course, I’m now obsessed with ashtrays and look for them everywhere I go. Just recently, I had lunch at a restaurant in Hummelstown where the décor is comprised of antiques, collectibles and memorabilia and wouldn’t you know it, the vanity in the ladies room was topped with about six ashtrays. I just might have to hit the Antiques Extravaganza (April 24-28) in Adamstown this month.

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