Vintage ashtrays are getting another round on the coffee table.
The staple accessory of the 1950s and 1960s has been hidden away in closets and basements since smoking indoors became unacceptable and unwelcome, but lovers of midcentury modern have long appreciated the good design of many high quality glass and ceramic ashtrays. Now the market has grown to include thrifters looking to inject a bit of affordable nostalgia, personality and design history in their homes.
“They contribute to the entire atmosphere of a room, and many are less than $20,” says Jay Kruz, co-owner of Retro Image Antiques and Vintage in Dearborn, Michigan, whose customers are into copper enamel or mosaic ashtrays. “People have seen them in old movies. This is an accessory that brings glamour, like the cocktail craze did.”
Many ashtrays sell at thrift stores or yard sales for just a few dollars. But the choice ones go for hundreds at places like Chairish or First Dibs.
“Tens of thousands of vintage ashtrays sold on eBay in North America in 2022,” Mari Corella, eBay’s general manager of home and hardgoods, wrote in an email. Sales of midcentury modern ashtrays were up “double digits” in February 2023 over last year, she says. “Some of the most iconic brands to make these nostalgic ashtrays are also seeing an uptick in interest,” she added. Trending searches, she says, include Hermes, Murano glass artist Alfredo Barbini and American potter M.A. Hadley.
Corella explains that midcentury modern continues to be popular in interior design and fashion because it “embraces a timeless optimism.” She adds, “Vintage ashtrays are great examples of decor pieces that bring something unique and distinct to a room.”
So if they’re not being used to catch ashes from cigarettes, what are people doing with them? “They are not really smoking. They put keys in them,” said Roxanne Beyleryan of Theodora Antiques and Design in Pomona, California, who sells vintage ashtrays on Chairish, First Dibs and Ruby Lane. It turns out ashtrays are very versatile, useful for holding jewelry, jelly beans or votive candles. Online listings often refer to them as “trinket trays” or “catchalls.”
There’s also the fact that cannabis use is being legalized in more states, creating a practical need for ashtrays, says Kruz’s wife and Retro Image Antiques and Vintage co-owner Karen Kruz.
Vintage ashtrays come in a dizzying array of choices: aqua ceramic atomic boomerangs; handblown Murano glass pieces in candy colors (popular on the 1960s-themed set of “Mad Men”); bronze or brass models; branded souvenirs once swiped from night clubs and hotels; and the motel staple stackable pastel melamine models. Heavy Bohemian cut-crystal ashtrays add a bit of Hollywood Regency to a space, while bent glass ashtrays with maps of Bermuda are perfect for a beach house. Campy choices with logos include Pabst Blue Ribbon or Pan Am (yes, smoking used to be allowed on planes). Tall metal smoking stands sometimes include a magazine rack below.
Warrenton, Virginia, designer Barry Dixon, who’s been known to pull over when he sees a good antique mall or vintage store, is a fan of the large agate and stone ashtrays from the 1950s and 1960s. “These are beautiful designs and can be used in many ways,” said Dixon, who has repurposed them as wine coasters or soap dishes in his own home and the homes of clients. He also likes Murano glass or old copper or bronze models as well. “Be creative,” he said. “You can use them for olive pits or sauces for sushi. It’s sustainable.”
Many ashtrays evoke a forgotten place or time. “They’re perfect accessories for the basement, club room, or any maximalist’s living room,” said Virginia Crum, owner of vintage home store Chartreuse & co in Buckeystown, Maryland. She says sales of vintage ashtrays with hotel logos mushroomed during COVID-19, as did vintage hotel silver and china. “Instead of going out, people wanted to make their homes a destination for themselves.”
Old ashtrays are consistent best sellers. “A lot of people are looking for weird, funky shapes,” said Lauren Cross, who co-owns vintage shop Hakaar’s Bazaar in Springfield, Missouri. “Whenever I’m going around the store and setting up different areas, I whip out these cool ashtrays and set them out, the bigger the better,” Cross said. Her recent hot sellers include 1960s Vegas casino ashtrays and pieces made by noted midcentury potters such as Haeger.
Dealer Katie Marks says being in Greensboro, the tobacco capital of North Carolina, has brought her an endless supply of ashtrays in many shapes and sizes, found at yard sales, estate sales, Goodwill and Salvation Army. “They’re intriguing to me because I can find old country clubs and hotels and beautiful glass ones,” says Marks, who sells through LocoToasty on Etsy and Revision Vintage, a retail shop. She owns several 1920s vanity ashtrays, “dainty, small glass or crystal ashtrays women used when they smoked while getting ready to go out,” she said. “I don’t even think of them as ashtrays, I just appreciate them for how they look.”
Not many companies are producing new ashtrays. A recent search on West Elm for “ashtrays” came up with two hits – both of which are wooden serving trays made of ash.
But there are a few options for new models. Actor Seth Rogen, who frequently extols the joys of smoking marijuana, started collecting vintage ashtrays in 2001 (there are now more than 600). When he took up pottery in 2019, he decided to create his own version of an ashtray for weed smokers, with a deep well and generous notch. Rogen’s “cannabis lifestyle” company Houseplant sells a number of his designs.
According to Michael Mohr, Houseplant’s co-founder and CEO, “There was a point in time and culture in American society where smoking was in vogue. Great creative and financial resources were poured into the pursuit of ash catching.” Mohr said, “We find that some of our consumers are buying them to display them, and potentially not use them.”
And dealers seem to know that most collectors of vintage ashtrays also have no intention of using their prized pieces for stubbing out burning cigarettes. For example, a recent eBay listing for a vintage glossy black ceramic Stork Club ashtray ($385) from the now-shuttered New York nightclub says: “Excellent condition for vintage item! No chips or cracks. Stored in clean, smoke-free space.”