Tobacco Collectible
RUBBER TIRE ASHTRAYS

by: Roy Nuhn


Goodrich Silvertowns, 1940s-60s

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, February, 2005
 

Whatever its merits, especially considering today's warnings about the bad effects of tobacco on our health, the tobacco industry has been kind to collectors over the last couple of centuries.

Late 19th-century cigar and cigarette companies provided an unending flow of wonderful insert premiums, such as cards of baseball players, actresses, famous people, and important American landmarks. They also used lithographic labels on their cigar boxes that are now the source of endless delight to collectors.

Besides the obvious memorabilia - advertising, product remainders, signs - tobacco collectors, many of them non-smokers, search out anything and everything that has any connection to the weed. The list includes tobacco cutters, tin cans and other containers, wooden boxes, identification tags, penny cigarette machines, pipes, spittoons, and ashtrays.

Ashtrays!

Purely a utilitarian object as first, it came into use when people stopped chewing tobacco in favor of smoking it. In Europe and in other parts of the world, ashtrays since the 1890s developed into works of art, representative of the style and craft of their country of origin. Every type of material, from porcelain to bamboo, has been used and they have been cast into every shape from "boring functional" to Art Deco and ultra-modern. Only in America did the ashtray fail to gain any sort of esthetic or artistic merit.

The history of the ashtray is fragmentary and little exact data is known, mostly coming from a study of the items themselves. The date when rubber tire ashtrays were first introduced is unknown, but very likely it was in the 1920s. Their method of production is by molds and that form of rubber technology came into wide use by novelty makers during the Roaring 20s.


Miller Deluxe ("Geared to the Road" and "Long Safe Mileage"), c. 1940s or '50s. Glass insert is missing

It was the bicycle fad of the 1890s, with its need for millions of tires, that gave birth to the tire industry. This was followed by a demand for solid rubber tires to replace the old fashion wooden wheels on carriages and commercial vehicles of all types.

The automobile, child of the 20th century, provided the impetus for the founding of hundreds of small tire manufacturers and the subsequent growth of a few of these, such as Goodyear and Firestone, into corporate giants. The first pneumatic came along in 1906 and quickly made obsolete its predecessor, the threadlike sized solid rubber tire.

The history of the tire industry from 1900 until the present is one of bitter and relentless competition for markets and customers. As the years rolled by, the hundreds of firms shrunk down to dozens until today we have only a handful left.

The rubber tire ashtray was one very small and insignificant advertising tool used by these firms. Part of the appeal to collectors is their recalling of long-gone companies and trade names, such as the Seiberling patrician or Goodrich Silvertown.

Essentially, they can be considered miniature tires and rarely does a person get the opportunity to collect a small replica of an actual everyday product. Branded on their sides are the logos, trade names, manufacturers, sizes and other imprints actually found on tires. They were conceived and produced to be exact duplicates in every way.

Viewed from certain perspectives, they are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing! They look, smell, and feel like real tires, which is what was intended. Sizes vary, but most are 5 12 or 6 inches in diameter by 1 or l 14   inches wide. They do come as small as 3 14 x 1 inch and as large as 8 x 3 inches, but these are rare exceptions.

Each rubber tire ashtray has a definite grooved tire pattern, similar to the tread design found on the tires on your car. I have yet to determine whether or not these patterns duplicate or approximate the tire they are advertising, or if they are purely random engravings. Somehow, though, I feel many may be near-duplicates. The tread design, so critical to the tire's performance on the road, would have been well worth the extra trouble to reproduce on the tire ashtrays advertising that specific style.

In real life a tire is manufactured by wrapping layers of fabric, made of rubber and synthetics, around a drum to form a carcass, a process little changed since 1920. When finished, the ungrooved tire is placed in an automatic curing press, or mold, where it receives its final shape and tread design. The ashtray counterparts, on the other hand, are finalized also in a mold which gives them their shape, size and pattern, but the carcass is certainly not put together the same way as a tire.

The ashtrays were originally made of waste materials from the actual tire manufacturing process. Before 1970s such waste was salvaged and sold to Canadian and American novelty makers who picked it up from tire plants. It was used by them in producing toys and other products, including ashtray orders. Since then, however, technology has devised ways to rework this scrap material into new tires, so modern tire ashtrays are made of plastic or rubber from other sources.

Each year most tire manufacturers had new ashtrays made based on that year's tire tread designs. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., especially, was one of the largest producers of ashtrays for advertising purposes.

Ashtrays were distributed to the dealers and franchises who used them as promotional handouts (or sold at cost). The companies themselves gave them away at trade shows, expositions, and utilized them for other marketing needs. They were also used extensively within the company, in offices, lobbies, etc.

Inside the hub of each tire ashtray is a glass insert often amber, blue, etc., which served as the place for the ashes, and usually carried either the manufacturer's or dealer's ad message. These glass inserts are of great value to collectors in solving the problem of dating. The actual tire portion itself is of even greater help, but you must be familiar with the tire industry and its history in order to gain any useful information from this source.

The collecting of rubber tire ashtrays is far from being a stabilized hobby and prices fluctuate widely, going as high at $30 to $40 for the more common to as high as $100 for specials, such as expositions. The average price, however for most is in the $20 range, depending upon condition, age, and specific tire being promoted. The glass inserts vary greatly in attractiveness, some being colored glass and others having pasted-on advertising, they are also a major determining factor. Some of the tires show burn damage; they were, after all, created for a very mundane use, and this, too, has some effect on final values.

Special topics, notably models for expositions and World's Fairs, such as the 1934 Century of progress in Chicago, California-Pacific International Exposition (San Diego, 1935), Great Lakes Exposition, (Cleveland, 1936), New York World's Fair (1939-1940), and the Golden Gate International Exposition (San Francisco, 1939), bring much higher prices. At these expo's, Firestone and other companies had large working exhibits that usually featured a tire-making facility. Their advertising rubber tire ashtrays were given away to visitors.

Tire manufacturers halted the production and distribution of advertising rubber tire ashtrays sometime during the 1980s, mainly due to high production costs. The molds alone could cost as much as $25,000. This is of some advantage to collectors, because the high cost of making the tobacco novelties is so high that it also prevents anyone else from turning out reproductions.

Collectors of rubber tire ashtray are a small but dedicated group. Finding such collectibles is not that difficult, so many having been manufactured over the years. Many collectors are past or current employees of a tire manufacturer and began by saving their company's sales promotionals.

A rubber tire ashtray collection is, in many ways, a panorama of an important American industry - and a preservation of a tiny bit of our automobile heritage. After all is said and done, they are a collectible that will probably never go flat!


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