The Disappearance of the Ashtray
See that thing above?
I inherited it from my mother, who passed away in the summer of 2020. When I first handed it to one of my teenage sons, he was impressed. It’s beautiful, he said. But — what is it?
“It’s an ashtray,” I told him.
You could forgive him for not recognizing it. Rates of cigarette smoking have plummeted in the last half century; back in the 60s, over 40% of Americans smoked, but now it’s down to a mere 11%. These rates vary based on geography and educational attainment, but the overall trend-lines are a ski slope downwards. Sure there’s plenty of vaping going on. But the amount of Americans who need somewhere to flick their ash and stub out a cig are as low as they’ve been in a long, long while.
This means that the ashtray itself, as an object, is dying. It is gradually receding from the great American life of stuff.
This is fascinating to me, because I’m old enough to have been a kid in the 70s and early 80s. Back then, ashtrays were positively omnipresent.
That’s because people smoked pretty much incessantly. On Sundays after church, my family would pile into our station wagon and drive out to my Ukrainian-Canadian grandparents’ farm to hang out for the day. It was about a 45-minute ride, but my mother would go through a couple of cigarettes during the short ride. She smoked Export A “Full Flavor”, which had such a short filter and correspondingly intense draw that they were colloquially referred to as the “death pack”; my very-proper, middle-class housemaker mom could have sauntered into any Hell’s Angels dive bar, bummed a smoke, and been confident of acquiring her favorite brand. Meanwhile, my father would light up an El Producto cigar, a dime-store brand that smelled like someone had lit a couch on fire. In the winter the windows of the car were kept tightly shut. When we arrived at my grandparents’ house, my uncles and aunts would all be there, every single one lighting their next cigarette off the ember of the current one. An inversion layer would form around waist height, with the only breathable oxygen being around their knees, and the upper half of the adults would vanish like skyscrapers into the clouds.