Thursday, November 3, 2011

Smoke from the Silver Screen

It begins with an interest and sometimes fascination with objects associated with smoking. For those of us exposed to the old black and white Hollywood movies commanded by Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders and Joan Crawford, the smoking of cigarettes onscreen was defined by beautiful lighting, elegant gestures, perfect hands, and rooms adorned with silver table lighters, ebony cigarette boxes and exquisitely curling plumes of silver white smoke. Tobacco companies would have to admit that Hollywood sold more cigarettes than any combination of signboards and magazine ads, as countless movie fans took up smoking with a desire to emulate the larger-than-life heroes and heroines of the silver screen. At one point women everywhere wanted to copy the gestures of stars like Nina Foch or Elizabeth Taylor, and men the suave cigarette-lighting techniques of Humphrey Bogart.

For some of us a fascination with the tools of smoking outlived our desire to smoke. The familiar icons of smoking—the silver ‘pine cone’ table lighters, small ashtrays from old transatlantic ocean liners, Zippo flip tops—have long attracted my collector’s eye. Flea markets, garage and yard sales offer the chance of discovering one of these old gems. A little over ten days ago a local flea market turned up several old pieces that fed my habit for old stuff, and one of them is an ashtray that I’ve allowed to ‘steep’ for some time before venturing any comment. Now that I’ve had it for a close to two weeks, there’s been time to soak up its look under different light, feel from day to day its roughness under my fingers, and to ponder the qualities that encouraged me to buy it. Maybe now I can better express what it is that makes an ashtray valuable to a non-smoker.

For a long time I had little interest in Japanese smoking paraphernalia, but it was probably natural that over time an interest would evolve in handmade ceramic ashtrays of that country. Interest was boosted by the design of many Japanese potters, one that was unique and rarely seen in Western countries. From my earliest days in Japan I began to notice everywhere ashtrays in a shape I had never seen. They were uniformly deep with an opening in the center edged by a rough patterned collar for stubbing out a cigarette before dropping it into the deep bowl. Many were ordinary, but a number of them were handsome in a spartan-like design.

The flea market ashtray I brought home recently is of this last type. A rectangular shape measuring 4.5 inches by 3.5, with a depth of 2¼ inches, the top pieces on either side of the opening slanting downward slightly and having a ribbed texture to facilitate putting out the cigarette. The color of the glaze is gray on the upper half with a brown ribbed lower half showing blue highlights. Much to my disappointment I am unable to read the mark on the bottom and must wait to ask a Japanese friend for help. My best guess is that it reads: ‘Shigura’ which could be a name or the location of the kiln. I also have to guess how old the piece is, since that is a very hard point to discern in a piece like this one. Definitely not contemporary, a reasonable guess might put it somewhere between 1945 and 1955.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the man selling the ashtray had no idea what it was or where it came from. There was nothing distinctive about the piece to his eyes and he accordingly sold it for two dollars. For him not too good, since that price was way under value. I have a friend coming soon who enjoys the occasional cigarette. Hopefully he will find some of the same appreciation for this $2 beauty that I have.


  1. I still have my old Zippo lighter from the 1960's stored in some drawer or some box--no doubt next to theatre reviews and other trappings of youth. Easy to recall overfilling it and the burning on thigh or hip after slipping it into tight jeans. I, too, look at ashtrays at garage and estate sales; they make great containers for keys, loose change, found rocks, candy, you name it.

  2. Are you paying more than $5 / pack of cigarettes? I buy my cigs at Duty Free Depot and this saves me over 50%.

  3. After doing some online research, I got my first electronic cigarette kit from VaporFi.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America