Ashtrays and the Evolution of Smoking Culture in America
I can’t believe how rapidly smoking culture has evolved, just in my lifetime. When I was a kid, my parents both smoked cigarettes… indoors. Damn near every table in the house had an ashtray on it, some had two. They had fancy ashtrays, for special occasions, and they had everyday ashtrays. They even had extra ashtrays in a drawer in case they had company.
I remember that you used to be able to buy ashtrays in stores, and they had lots of different kinds. They had cheap disposable ashtrays stamped from foil,
nice expensive ashtrays that looked like they belonged on an executive’s desk,
ashtrays carved from solid rock,
and an amazing assortment of ceramic ashtrays.
These things really existed. I distinctly remember ashtrays,
avocado-green boomerang-shaped ashtrays,
round mosaic-tiled ashtrays, as big as a dinner plate, that weighed at least ten lbs,
stacks of brightly-colored mod-looking ashtrays manufactured from some sort of polymer resin.
I know I remember ashtrays.
You would see one of these things, and you immediately knew what it was. You wouldn’t dream of using it for anything else. Even if it was brand new, people would look at you like you had lost your mind if you decided to, for instance, eat pudding out of an ashtray.
The intended purpose of an ashtray was to provide a non-flammable place to rest a lit cigarette, a suitable receptacle for flicked ashes, and a surface onto which a cigarette butt could be safely snuffed out. Ashtrays came in a bewildering array styles because people wanted their ashtrays to match the decor of the rooms those ashtrays would inhabit.
Do you remember ashtrays? I know there are young people out there right now thinking “ash trays?”, like they never saw those two words combined before. They have no idea what I’m talking about. They’ve never seen an ashtray, not even on TV. If you wanted to show a kid an ashtray, where would you go? If you wanted an ashtray for yourself, where would you go to buy one?
The disappearance of ashtrays, coupled with the number of people I’ve seen sitting under the eves of their own homes tells me that very few people smoke cigarettes indoors anymore. If you can’t do it in stores, bars or restaurants, and nowadays people won’t even do it in their own homes, cigarette smoking seems to have become an exclusively outdoor activity.
I’m mostly happy about this. I don’t smoke cigarettes, and I have become much more sensitive to cigarette smoke. I can’t imagine living with someone who insisted on smoking cigarettes indoors today, but I also feel for smokers. It must be a drag to have to excuse yourself from a warm cozy room to go stand outside in the cold, rain, snow, wind, heat, whatever, with nothing but a coffee can full of sand for your butts, like some kind of exile. That’s harsh.
At the same time, marijuana smoking has become much more accepted. As a result, you can find boutiques all over this country that cater to marijuana smokers. You’ll find these shops stocked to the gills with a dizzying array of new smoking products ranging from vaporizers and dabbing nails, to hookahs and bongs to bubblers, hand pipes and rolling papers, no ashtrays, oddly enough, but tons of other smoking accessories.
I don’t know what pot smokers are supposed to do with the ashes that result from smoking marijuana, but the free market has provided them with a million new ways to turn marijuana into ash. After that, pot smokers are pretty much on their own.
From the look of all of this new smoking gear, nearly everyone who smokes marijuana, does it indoors. Half of the new vaporizers plug into a wall outlet. Not many of those out in the woods. Nobody takes a glass bong the size of a bassoon to go get high in the park. Giant, conspicuous smoking apparatuses like that, stay at home, in a room.
I’m sure that part of the reason people smoke pot at home is the legal environment. Because of marijuana prohibition, pot smokers have gotten used to smoking in secret, so they do it privately, behind closed doors. Even now that two states have made smoking marijuana a legal recreational activity, both Washington and Colorado still prohibit marijuana use in public. It seems that even as legalization takes hold, considerable social pressure remains to keep marijuana smoking an indoor activity.
Today, we see cigarette smokers outside under the eves with their cancer sticks and their can of sand, while marijuana smokers sit comfy and warm in their blacklit bedrooms with their Rube Goldberg meets Dr. Seuss smoking contraptions,
and maybe an old saucer that they drop their ashes into, or perhaps a potted plant. I use an oyster shell, personally. I don’t know what other people do.
It’s got to be rough for people who smoke both marijuana and cigarettes. They smoke some pot, but then they’ll have to step outside for a cigarette. They’ll have to ask someone to hold their contraption, go stand under the eve, smoke their butt, come back in, enjoy a few tokes, then it’s back out under the eves again. These people need revolving doors, and when was the last time you saw one of those.
It kind of reminds me of segregation. I know it’s not the same thing by a long shot, but cigarette smokers used to rule the world. They wouldn’t even ask, “Do you mind if I smoke?” before they lit up. The air belonged to them, and if you didn’t like it, too bad. Businesses put ashtrays everywhere, just to remind cigarette smokers that they were welcome to fill the establishment with foul smelling fumes, and free matches, bearing the company logo were always close by.
Now cigarette smokers stand out in the cold like dogs who don’t know how to behave indoors, while marijuana smokers sit on the sofa in climate controlled comfort, fondling their preposterous pyrex party pipes, looking around for someplace to dump their freshly cashed bowl. My how the tables have turned, but I’ll bet you won’t find an ashtray on any of them.