I live in a house that previously belonged to my parents, so naturally there are a lot of artifacts of theirs in cabinets and closets and other storage spaces. I’m no hoarder. I’m actually pretty good about keeping the place free of clutter by throwing out useless things. There are, of course, some items of sentimental value that I keep. Also, there are some things I don’t use but that are useful in principle. If they are not actually in the way, they tend to get left where they are. There are my mom’s teacups, for instance. I’m not sentimental about them. I’ve never have had a formal tea party and I doubt I ever will. On the occasions when I drink tea, I always use (as I do for coffee) a mug for its heft and capacity. I nearly always serve tea to others in mugs too. I doubt I’ve poured tea more than three or four times into a china cup in the past fifteen years, and then only for guests who specifically asked for a cup rather than a mug. Only once was the full set used during all that time, and on that occasion by a quasi-niece as a lark with her friends. Nonetheless, the space the cups occupy in the hutch otherwise would be empty, so it simply doesn’t occur to me to give them away or sell them on eBay. Writing that last sentence was the first time it ever did, but I still don’t plan on it.
What brings all this to mind is an ashtray. Years ago I disposed of most of the ashtrays that had been stored in various cabinets, but there is one that is both useful (some people do still smoke, at least outside on the porch) and of mild sentimental value. Dating to the 1940s, it was in my parents’ home before I born. I recall it being on some table or household surface my entire life.
Like most Americans of my generation I grew up in a smoke-filled house, travelled in smoke-filled cars, worked in a smoke-filled office, and relaxed in smoke-filled restaurants and bars. I am not a smoker and never was. In the 70s, however, I was so accustomed to life amid ambient smoke that I truly didn’t notice it. The nose is an accommodating organ that way: after a while it stops informing you of whatever is constantly present. Lacking the zeal of the reformed, to this day I am less sensitive to tobacco smoke than the typical former smoker. Throughout the 70s, ashtrays were normal items on counters, coffee tables, and desks in homes and workplaces. It was the rare den, living room, dining room, or kitchen without at least one.
The decline of smoking accelerated in the 80s and 90s as tobacco smokers became first segregated and then banned altogether from work spaces, indoor public spaces, and bars. In the 90s automobiles without ash trays started to appear though my ’98 GMC pickup has one. As smokers became exiled to the out-of-doors in one venue after another, ash trays began to vanish from homes and offices as well. Apparently, younger folk no longer always recognize one when they see it. Recently a Millennial at my house for a get-together employed my keepsake ashtray for a candy dish. I thought it was a clever repurposing and quipped that it still was being used for something bad for your health. This evoked a puzzled response. She hadn’t recognized it as an ashtray, but thought it was a purpose-designed candy or hors d'oeuvres dish.
I suppose that’s a good thing. There is a country-western homage to classic vices from 1947 (about the same age as the ashtray) Cigarettes Whiskey and Wild Wild Women. Millennials – especially the younger ones 18-24 – have cut back on all three. According to the consumer expenditure data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the year 2000 in inflation adjusted terms, spending on tobacco by Americans in this age-range has fallen by a third while spending on alcohol has cut in half. (Yet binge-drinking and non-automotive alcohol-related hospitalizations are up in the same group – figure that one out.) Tobacco sales have fallen only slightly in other age groups while alcohol sales to non-Millennials are up substantially. The Bureau doesn’t keep track of the final part of the song, but other studies show that Millennials are dating and having sex a good deal less than their elders did at their age. They’re eating their fruits and vegetables though: their spending on those is up well over 50% since 2000.
I have nothing against responsible bibulation of whiskey, and I have not a word to say against wild wild women either as an identity or as a companion of such. But in truth, I don’t much miss days and nights when Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I’m happy to have a new candy dish.
Sons of Pioneers – Cigarettes Whiskey and Wild Wild Women (1947)