On ashtrays

You talk about an anti-aesthetic relic from my past, the ashtray was a pretty common household item during the fifties, sixties and early seventies. The Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act of 1975 was the first law of its kind in the United States, which banned smoking in many public places, including MSP airport. Before that law, however, smoking was a pretty common place activity, and although most people knew that the practice or vice was prejudicial towards one’s health, many people smoked openly because of the highly addictive nature of the alkaloid nicotine. Ashtrays were everywhere, public and private, and all households had an assortment of ashtrays, both functional and decorative. It was not uncommon to find ashtrays on end tables or coffee tables, kitchen tables, or even bathrooms. As a child, I remember a series of ashtrays in our home, some, small and round, others were larger and more decorative. I dare say that if a person were to dig around in the attic or basement of most homes in America that date from that pre-1975 period, one would fine an assortment of ashtrays. Of course, ashtrays took a lot of abuse and were frequently broken and chipped, stained. People would use ashtrays for almost anything, and frequently the only thing they weren’t used for were ashes. Of course, a full ashtray would stink up a room in no time, and an ashtray full of old ashes was worse, rancid and burnt. For decades cars had ashtrays as a standard component of the front dash. It always ticked me off to watch someone empty their car’s ashtray in a public parking lot as if the whole world was their particular garbage dump. I don’t blame anyone for smoking. Smoking, though always a suspicious activity health-wise, was a common social practice until the medical community started dealing with numerous cases of lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking related illnesses. The average person who got hooked before about 1965 had no reason, really, to suspect that the practice of smoking was such a toxic affair. The ubiquitous ashtray is a symbol of a time gone by, of a more innocent time when no one really knew that smoking could take ten years off of your life, contribute to high blood pressure, cause a half-dozen kinds of cancer, lower lung capacity, weaken the immune system, and make everything in the vicinity smell really, really bad. The ashtrays were always there to collect the ashes and the butts. In my mind I can still see a lit cigarette sitting quietly in a groove, a thin band of smoke rising gently toward the ceiling. The ashes themselves were a symbol of modern consumerism at its worse: paying good money for a product that you would then set on fire. Of course, most people used smoking as a delivery system for nicotine, to which they were addicted. Again, I’m not judging or blaming anyone. If I had been born a couple of decades earlier, I probably would have smoked myself, would have had a variety of ashtrays, and would have found that quitting was nye on impossible. People still smoke today, but the numbers are way down in the United States. Smoking is now prohibited almost everywhere, and unless you visit the house of a smoker, you never see ashtrays anywhere anymore. Maybe that is for the best.