There are many thousands of collecting categories and it can be interesting when two of them overlap, especially if they seemingly have nothing in common. Take cigarette smoking and air travel for instance. Lighting up in a commercial airliner these days will get you arrested but collectors of tobacciana (vintage items relating to tobacco), and collectors of aviation memorabilia often share common ground. That’s what makes the prices for vintage ashtrays that are decorated with airplanes so very high.
The glue that binds them together is Art Deco; the visual arts design style that first appeared in the 1920s celebrating modernism and the machine age. Machines that travel were the ultimate expressions of modernity and manufacturers would naturally turn to Art Deco for inspiration.
People who designed machines that fly also had a major concern with airflow. By necessity the aviation industry dropped the boxy look of the early 20th century and, beginning in the 1930s, designed planes with smooth, gently curved surfaces. That lead to the Streamline style which fit nicely with Art Deco and was soon applied to just about anything, whether it moved or not. Refrigerators went from square to streamlined almost overnight.
Cigarette smoking also became very popular and stylish in the 1920s. The commercial cigarette industry began in France in the mid 1800s – the word cigarette is French for “small cigar” - but it really got going in America after James Bonsack invented the first cigarette rolling machine in 1880. Machine-made cigarettes were considered another triumph of technology; they looked much nicer (and were more profitable) than the old hand-rolled smokes. Most collectable tobacciana items; lighters, ashtrays, cigarette holders and cigarette advertising, are classic Art Deco so in that light, ashtrays and airplanes are indeed a natural fit.
The most iconic and best known airplane ashtray is the classic floor stand, popular in the 1940s and 50s. They were all highly decorated chrome and glass, which was lit. At the top was a chrome airplane that closely resembled a DC3. The windows were cut out and there was a light on the inside, it had moveable propellers and many could swivel up and down. These ashtrays are hugely popular and often sell for around a thousand dollars because, well who wouldn’t want one?
You have to be careful though before you lay out a big wad of cash for one of these beauties. Because of their popularity, there’s a lot of trickery going on. For one thing, there are reproductions being made in China. They’re nice, but not worth the big collector bucks. The original ashtrays are 50 to 60 years old so some restoration and parts replacement is inevitable and desirable, but many airplane ashtrays currently on the market are cobbled together from various bits and pieces and often include parts that simply don’t belong. That may be fine, it’s just an ashtray after all, but if you are buying or selling one, you should be aware of it. Fortunately the reproductions and poor restorations are easy to spot if you know how to look for them.
All the originals were made in Canada by the Metalcraft Company of Toronto so if you want to make sure a particular item is legitimate; check all the metal component parts carefully. Metalcraft didn’t mark them all but if one of them is marked as being made anywhere other than Canada or by any company other than Metalcraft, that should raise a red flag. The airplane itself was made by Metalcraft but the electrical parts were contracted out, the ones I’ve seen have a label from Tuscany Mfg., but with CSA approval so still made in Canada.
These stands, although popular, are only a small part of the airplane ashtray world. Many serious collectors prefer the desktop models that were made by several different companies all over the world. For one thing, they’re small, so you can amass a larger collection without filling up rooms and getting your spouse upset. There’s also a lot more variety and every collector loves that.
These small airplane ashtrays were mostly manufactured between 1940 and 1960 and the best were carefully made scale models of production aircraft that were then mounted on desktop ashtrays. Most were used as marketing tools by aircraft companies and military contractors; they would be given to executives and high-ranking decision-makers to display on their desks. Because they were not sold to the public, they are very hard to find today but if you get hooked on collecting them, your life is not complete until you have every model of a particular brand of aircraft or every item produced by a certain company.
The two biggest companies producing airplane ashtrays were Allyn Manufacturing and Victor F. Pashtushin Industries. Their ashtrays are highly prized by collectors for their quality craftsmanship and attention to detail as well as their sheer beauty.
Obviously most of these desktop ashtrays were made in the U.S. or Europe, with a few being made in Canada but oddly enough, a disproportionately high number of them come from Australia, which was not an industrial powerhouse at the time.
This is because during the Second World War, there were a lot of U.S. soldiers in Australia fighting in the South Pacific. Many Aussie entrepreneurs discovered there was a ready market for souvenirs and, as cigarettes were still part of a soldier’s ration pack at the time, ashtrays were an obvious choice.
Australian ashtrays often had a base that was shaped like a map of Australia and engraved with the locations of principal cities. They would usually be decorated with a chrome kangaroo (to make it really, really Australian) or an airplane, which expressed Australia’s desire to be part of the modern, industrial world. There’s even stories that many of them were made by workers in various plants who, on their bosses’ time, would make the airplane decorations using the finest materials, sneak them out of the factory, then assemble souvenirs to sell to the “over paid, over sexed and over here” American soldiers.
Australian ashtrays from the period are now a significant sub-category of aviation/tobacciana collecting, but there’s many more. Back in the day when smoking on airplanes was acceptable, each seat had its own lighter installed. Those airplane lighters are very collectable today, some rare ones selling for hundreds of dollars.
So even though smoking and air travel are no longer as exciting and romantic as they used to be, we can enjoy and appreciate some of the objects made in the days when health warnings and terrorists were not an overriding concern.