I was having tea with a friend at her house and we were talking about all sorts of things; we have known each other for about three years, but met through a shared activity with other people so today was the first time we’d just sat the two of us nattering. We were talking about our lives, and as we are a similar age there have been a lot of similar experiences. We were talking about homes and houses as both of us are going through the process of getting rid of unwanted things – many of which we like but have no use for or have no room for or are only holding on for sentimental reasons.

We were talking about how lifestyles have changed and she jumped up and said she was going to show me something and I followed her into another room. On the window sill were three little dishes, about four or five inches long, narrow, shallow, a pretty greeny glaze – and at the back side of each was a miniature vehicle. There was a horse-drawn omnibus, and old-fashioned engine driven omnibus, and a red London bus. They were made from metal and attached through the lip of the ceramic dish. The buses had adverts on appropriate to the age of the transport and were each painted red. They were utterly charming.

I knew exactly what the little dishes were, but how many young people would – I say young people, because since the smoking ban in public, and the large number of people who have given up smoking, not every house has ashtrays – these were ashtrays. When I was a child every household had ashtrays because so many people smoked – gosh, how it must have smelled! My friend and I talked about going to the cinema and seeing the screen through a pall of smoke, going into pubs and the walls and ceilings were yellow with nicotine, going to a restaurant and have people all around smoking while you ate.

I know people still do smoke, but in general the air is much cleaner, and you no longer go out socially and come home with your clothes stinking. It used to be totally socially acceptable, and at Christmas I remember gifts (not to me – I was a child!) of tins of cigarettes. There were smoking related gifts for children though – a ‘smoking set’ made from licorice or a sort of icing, with toasted coconut as tobacco.

I guess junk shops must be full of old ashtrays, and I guess many people buy them not knowing what they are – as they might ones like my friend’s little dishes!

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