To Make Ashtrays

When I was a kid, my classmates and I were encouraged to make ashtrays during the pottery unit in art class. Teachers wanted us to make something that might be useful to parents but that didn’t have to be perfectly glazed for safety (no drinking glasses or cereal bowls). We weren’t perfect glazers in any sense, nor were we perfect pot formers, be they pinch pots or coil pots. Much of children’s lumpy, multi-colored, multi-textured pottery was only good for tapping the ashes off a cigarette. Can you imagine children being encouraged to make ashtrays in school today?

Smoking was a common cultural phenomenon for both men and women in the 1970s and 1980s. My dad smoked up to three or four packs a day. I think Marlboro was his brand. Mom smoked occasionally, mostly on a social basis. Smoking was so socially acceptable that the Little Falls High School had a fenced area outside the doors near the math department that was designated for student smoking. Kids called it the Bull Pen. This was at a time when it was illegal for anyone under age 18 to smoke, so for the school to have a designated spot of illegal student smoking seems unconscionable now, especially in light of today’s Zero Tolerance policies, which are so strict it’s a wonder kids are allowed to breathe in school.

It seems to me the thinking behind providing the Bull Pen was that kids were going to smoke anyway so it was better to have them do it outside rather than in the bathrooms. I was not a smoker so I never went out to the Bull Pen. There was an air of mystery and intrigue that surrounded the place for me, although for those who visited, a haze of smoke and gossip were probably all that filled the air.

Society’s acceptance of smoking had to have been shifting in the 1980s because, as teens, my siblings and I were constantly campaigning to get Dad to quit. I remember watching an anti-smoking movie with him called “Cold Turkey” that seemed to spur us on. (Online research shows that this movie, written as a comedy about a town of people staying away from cigarettes for a month, was released in 1971. As I was only four then, I’m guessing we caught a rerun when I was older. The movie starred Dick Van Dyke, who has always reminded me of my dad.) After stopping and starting a number of times, my dad finally quit smoking.

Second-hand smoke and the smell of cigarettes have never appealed to me, but after nagging Dad to quit, it certainly would have been hypocritical of me to start, so I’ve never taken up smoking.

After giving up cigarettes, Dad started chewing toothpicks because they gave his hands and mouth something to do. We used to joke that he’d catch Dutch elm disease. Splinters of toothpicks wound up in many of the ashtrays we had in the house, although I can’t recall Dad ever using one of the handmade ashtrays my siblings or I had made for him in art class.

Mary Warner

One Reply to “To Make Ashtrays”

  1. Got a chuckle when I read your story Mary. Went through this with my dad, but I never had the ash tray project when I attended school. I’m sure my dad would have used it if I had though, probably on the porch, as he smoked everywhere in and out of the house.


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