While primitive forms of ashtrays existed way before the 19th century, it was during the last century that the design, aesthetics and their popularity really took off. As more women began to smoke in the early 1900’s, the ashtray inched closer to an art form of sorts. Many women avoided the use of the traditional ashtray as it failed to reflect their feminine values through an activity that was long declared as being exclusive to men. What emerged were detailed, often very fancy ashtrays. These ashtrays depicted pastoral scenes of maidens wandering through vibrantly coloured landscapes. Some even featured very luxurious cast-iron models of women in fancy dresses, animals in states of play and the occasional porcelain or ceramic tray highlighting extravagant floral arrangements.
Ashtrays have also taken rather uncomfortable forms. In some American homes they were the bisected skulls of Japanese soldiers, taken home as souvenirs by US soldiers who’d fought in the Pacific.
The professional Australian, TV reviewer, , essayist, novelist and poet, Clive James has an interesting story about the humble ashtray.
I smoked so much that I needed the hubcap of a Bedford van as an ashtray. I had found the hubcap lying in the gutter in Trumpington Street, and thought, ‘That will make an ideal ashtray.’ A man who thinks like that has to be a real smoker. From then on, with the help of the hubcap, I proved I was. At the end of the day – a phrase I usually like to avoid, unless I am talking, as here, about the end of the day – the hubcap would be full of cigarette butts.
Actor John Goodman tells a story of some advice he received from Peter O’Toole while making King Ralph in 1991. During a break in filming, Goodman, in awe of the British thespian, asked to borrow an ashtray. O’Toole, with characteristic flair, flicked his ash on the floor and declared: ‘Make the world your ashtray, my boy.’