The Ubiquitous Cigarette

Dad' savings bank
Dad’ savings bank

A while ago an acquaintance told me she thought it odd that I collected smoking paraphernalia, considering that I don’t smoke, and wouldn’t even let friends smoke in my house. I took great offence at what she said, because I don’t collect smoking paraphernalia at all. That is not to say I don’t have stuff that comes along with smoking in the house, I just don’t collect it. All of these items were family things that I have kept because they are associated with my parents or grandparents. She didn’t understand the difference.

I think that, now in our society and culture of no-smoking, and demonizing or pitying cigarette smokers, we forget that there was a time that smoking was ubiquitous. Both my parents and both sets of grandparents smoked. And honestly, all of their friends were smokers too. Thinking back to my childhood I cannot think of a time when there wasn’t a cigarette around me. The house was filled with ashtrays. The only rooms in the house without them were mine and my brother’s bedrooms. The more utilitarian looking ashtrays of glass or metal with simple rims tended to be in the non-public rooms, but the living room and the den had the nicer ashtrays. There was one which was white and red art glass; my brother now uses it as a candy dish. Smoking was part of their everyday life, and played an important role in their socialisation.

Ashtray with Grandfather's initials
Ashtray with Grandfather’s initials

Grandfather's ashtray made out of the bottom of brass ammo, circa WWII
Grandfather’s ashtray made out of the bottom of brass ammo, circa WWII

I remember my maternal grandfather smoking his pipe. It was fascinating to watch him fill the bowl with tobacco, pad it down, then light it up. The smell of the tobacco is one of those smells that remind me of him. My paternal grandfather also smoked pipes, and Dad had a collection of them in our den. He sometimes smoked them as well.
Grandfather's pipe
Grandfather’s pipe

I have this little metal case that my mother carried in her purse for as long as I remember. It is small, pink and has the image of a smoking cigarette in an ashtray on the top. It is a portable ashtray. It allowed Mom to smoke wherever she was, and not worry about her buts and ashes. I treasure it, because Mom loved it, she would bring it out from her purse like some kind of treasure. There was this sense of wonder and intrigue. It was unusual and it was useful.
The portable ashtray
The portable ashtray

Inside the ashtray- still haven't cleaned it out.
Inside the ashtray- still haven’t cleaned it out.

My father kept a number of tobacco related items which his father had as mementos as well- his dad’s pipes, cigarette cases, lighters (even some that no longer worked). Smoking was for him just as connected to his childhood and the memories of his late parents. And although I never knew my paternal grandparents, I keep them because Dad treasured them.

No doubt the usefulness of the items to our life dictates to certain degrees what items have been kept and which were not. Small items like pipes and portable ashtrays are easy mementos because they don’t take up much room. But larger items like cigarette cases, ashtrays, and tins are kept because they continue to serve a purpose, although different now, or are decorative.

Cigarette case given to my grandfather from the town of Hamstead, QC in gratitude for his service as alderman.
Cigarette case given to my grandfather from the town of Hamstead, QC in gratitude for his service as alderman.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t many fond memories of smoking itself. To me the act is inexorably linked to the cancer which killed my parents, two of my grandfathers, and a grandmother. I also remember having to clean the walls of our childhood home after their passing, and realising that the water was yellow from all of the nicotine of their cigarettes. The realisation that my parents had this lining their lungs- yuck! But smoking was a part of my life for the longest of times, even though I don’t smoke myself. And because of this, the artefacts of smoking have meaning to me, and so are kept.

If you are interested in the history of smoking, there is this great book by Jarrett Rudy called “The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity”(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005)

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