Even though the practice of smoking tobacco has been around since the 16th century, cigarettes did not achieve widespread popularity until the middle of the 19th. Not surprisingly, that’s also about the time when the first ashtrays appeared.
Whether or not you smoke, ashtrays are appealing collectibles for numerous reasons. First, they are small, which means you can acquire hundreds of ashtrays and display them in a relatively finite amount of space. Second, they were made out of a wide range of materials, so if you are a fan of art glass, pounded copper, or ceramics, there is bound to be an ashtray for you. Third, ashtrays were produced during some of the most creative periods in history, which means there are ashtrays for fans of the Victorian era, Arts and Crafts, and Art Deco. Finally, ashtrays are snapshots of their culture, so it is not uncommon to find ashtrays that were produced to advertise products and events of the day.
Ceramic ashtrays in the United States ranged from the simple, folksy animal shapes produced by Rookwood and Red Wing to the geometric ashtrays of Homer Laughlin, whose Fiesta and Amberstone ashtrays were marked by the firm’s trademark concentric rings. Haeger Pottery made ashtrays for commercial settings (hotels, restaurants), as did Shenango and Hall.
More fanciful were the ceramic ashtrays of Brush-McCoy, whose pot-bellied ashtray flanked by a pair of open-mouthed frogs (that’s where you were supposed to put your fresh cigarettes) is quite collectible. Currier & Ives made ceramic ashtrays whose borders and cigarette rests acted as frames for the scenic prints in their centers. Van Briggle made ashtrays in the shapes of card suits, and Homer Laughlin produced an ashtray whose central image of a group of dogs playing poker is a classic—for a while, smoking cigarettes and playing cards were inseparable activities. As for Russel Wright, his ashtrays were paragons of efficiency, with matchbox holders built into their bases.
Ashtrays in the U.K. were somewhat more refined. Made of porcelain by such renowned potteries as Wedgwood, English ashtrays tended to be formal and highly decorated. Wedgwood produced countless Jasperware ashtrays, mostly in the firm’s signature cobalt hue but also in pink, purple, and black. Royal Winton produced rectangular stacking ashtrays with colorful scenes on black backgrounds—a set of four ashtrays accompanied by a matching cigarette box is considered a real catch.
Funkier were Royal Doulton’s "ash receivers," so-called because they were not shaped like trays. Instead, these pieces assumed the form of hollowed-out heads depicting scoundrels and characters of English lore, from the 18th-century highwayman Dick Turbin to generically named cartoonish coots such as Farmer John and Old Charley.
Other international ceramic ashtrays included those made by Limoges, Haviland, and Quimper in France; the blue-on-white hand-painted windmill ashtrays from Delft of Holland; Royal Bayreuth, Villeroy & Boch, and Hummel ashtrays from Germany; and Japan’s Noritake ashtrays, which were sometimes decorated with figural frogs, pelicans, and horse heads...
Of the glass ashtrays, some of the easiest to collect are the Depression glass pieces made in the United States by Anchor Hocking, Bartlett Collins, and Federal. The Manhattan pattern, with its concentric rings and trios or quartets of cigarette rests, was quite common, as were ashtrays in the shapes of playing-card suits. Less widespread were Art Deco ashtrays, whose bases were chunkier and more architectural than decorative. Greensburg, Knox, and Hazel Atlas are three other manufacturer names to look for.
After the Depression, pressed-glass patterns such as Daisy Button, Moon & Stars, and Hobnail seemed perfectly suited to ashtrays; carnival glass, milk glass, and vaseline glass were also used. U.S. manufacturers included Akro Agate, Cambridge, Fenton, and Imperial.
Art-glass ashtrays were also popular. Everyone from Steuben to Lalique to Waterford to Daum made them. The Venetians pulled at the edges of their molten crystal to create everything from thick bubble-glass ashtrays to whimsical pieces in the shapes of clowns, fish, and birds.
In the 20th century, metal ashtrays were common all over the world. Brass, bronze, and copper were routinely used, but so were chrome, aluminum, and silver, from sterling to plate. Breaking away from these monochromatic ashtrays were the cloisonné and enameled pieces exported from China.
Regardless of the material they were made out of, ashtrays with advertisements on them were an economical way for companies to spread the word about their products and services. Since ashtrays were ubiquitous to bars, ashtrays sporting advertisements for beer and liquor brands were produced in great numbers, making them achievable collectibles today. Coors, Pabst, Olympia, Schlitz, Budweiser, Grain Belt, Stroh’s, Lone Star, Hamm’s, and Colt 45 are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to U.S. beer companies who advertised on ashtrays. In the U.K, Joule’s, Tennent’s, Bass, and Courage all left their marks on ashtrays, as did Heineken, Pilsner Urquell, St. Pauli Girl, Tuborg, Tucher Bier, and Hackerbräu.
If ashtrays for beer companies tended to be workmanlike, ashtrays for liquor producers were often handsome and sophisticated. Examples included the white Scotty dog figural in the center of a black ashtray for Black & White Scotch, or the Limoges ashtray with gold cigarette rests framing a portrait of Napoleon made for Camus Napoleon Cognac. Especially collectible is the yellow heart-shaped ashtray for Gordon’s gin, with the slogan "The Heart of a Good Cocktail" in black letters on the ashtray’s white rim.
Some people like to collect the glass or ceramic ashtrays made for U.S. casinos, Harrah’s the Sands, and the Hotel Fremont, to name but a few. Then there are collectors of ashtrays for nightclubs and entertainment spots, from the shallow, yellow glass squares made for the Playboy Club to the deep ceramic discs made for the Stork Club. Fraternal organizations made their own ashtrays, too—a Shrine ashtray featuring a figural of a red fez is particularly collectible.
Transportation-themed ashtrays were also popular. Those with a chrome airplane hovering over its ashtray are highly sought, as are the glass ashtrays sitting in a real rubber tires made by Firestone, Michelin, Goodyear, and others.
Finally there were the novelty ashtrays. The Big Mouths were hollow, porcelain ashtrays in the shape of tall, elongated heads with enormous, gaping mouths—vent holes in the head and ears allowed cigarette smoke to escape in comic ways. Most of these were made in Japan, but the most collectible ones are from the German firm of Shaffer & Vater.
Another type of Big Mouth had a rounder head and, inexplicably, a bee on the figure’s nose. There were Big Mouth animals, too, from cats and dogs to whales and frogs. Other novelty porcelain ashtrays included ones depicting Charlie Chaplin, happy-go-lucky hobos, and a tall conductor with strategically placed vents holes so that smoke would puff from his oversize ears.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Kensitas Silk Flowers
American Package Museum
Truth in Advertising
Found in Moms Basement
Clubs & Associations
- Antique Advertising Association of America
- The Cigarette Pack Collectors' Association
- On The Lighter Side
- The Rathkamp Matchcover Society
Other Great Reference Sites
- Cigar Label Junkie
- Duke Library: Emergence of Advertising in America
- NYPL Digital Gallery: Tobacco Prints
- Oxford Library: John Johnson Collection Exhibition
- NYPL Digital Gallery: Cigarette Cards
- Library of Congress: Broadsides and Ephemera
- Vintage Flames
- Duke Library: Presidential Campaign Memorabilia
- The Cartophilic Society of Great Britain