Reader asks about Zippo lighter
  • Lighting up with Zippo
  • The rewarding smell of a stash of cigars
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    Auction Finds

    When cigarettes were king

    I watched the TV show “Mad Men” for the first time last night. The mother of a friend loves the show, and I’d been meaning to check it out.

    I found the episode plodding and not very engaging. But one of the things that struck me about it was the main character’s penchant for lighting up a cigarette. Every time I turned around, Don Draper – played by actor Jon Hamm – had a cigarette in his mouth (even on the show’s website).

    I don’t see that very often anymore. I don’t smoke and neither do my friends (thank goodness). But “Mad Men” does take place in the 1960s when then – and decades before – learning to smoke was a rite of passage. The logo of the AMC show is the black and white image of a man in a suit, his back to us, his right arm stretched over the back of a chair, a cigarette between his fingers.

    I don’t come across cigarettes at auction (except for a pack of Mexican cigarettes once), but I have seen the paraphernalia. Back when more people smoked, they didn’t just carry a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. They had nice cigarette lighters and cigarette cases for women.

    Smoking in movies has always been idealized as glamorous. I remember watching old movies with female stars leaning forward as their male co-stars lit their cigarettes. Or the women opening a gold case to remove a cigarette with their white-gloved hands. Or a male actor putting out a cigarette in an ashtray on a table.

    You don’t see as many cigarettes smoked in the movies these days, or I don’t notice them (I was reminded that in the megabucks movie “Avatar,” Sigourney Weaver emerged from suspended animation asking for a cigarette). For years, cigarette makers paid studios to advertise their brands, but 20 years ago, the tobacco industry banned the practice. In the early “The Flintstones” cartoon series, Fred and Barney smoked Winston cigarettes, a sponsor of the show.

    There are campaigns to give an R rating to such movies aimed at children. While cigarette smoking is down among adults, studies have found that children are enticed into smoking by movies that feature actors puffing away.  

    I’m sure the “Flick My Bic” advertising of the 1980s spurred many to light up. But that plastic lighter lacked the elegance of the lighters and cases at auction. The earlier ones were more regal than pedestrian, some approaching the status of jewelry. And some well-known names were behind them. Evans. Zippo. Ronson. Carlton. Dunhill. Colibri.

    The first lighter was invented in 1823, and it wasn’t until the next century that Ronson made lighters portable and easy. Soldiers in trenches during World War I created their own out of used cartridges because they worried that lighting a match might alert the enemy. In 1932, the infamous Zippo lighter was created.

    Zippo lighters have changed little, and ones in a black crackle finish were handed out to soldiers during World War II.  There are websites for dating the lighters. At auction, I’ve seen Zippos inscribed with a golfer, a hunter, fleur-de-lis designs, wood tone, among others. They come in both standard and slim sizes. Zippos – like many of the others – are highly collectible.

    Other lighters at auction have included ones with cigarette names on them (Salem and Winston), company names and brands (including the Playboy bunny), table models and musical lighters made in Japan. At one auction, a box full of novelty lighters sparked hefty bidding. I believe that they sold for $40 or $50.  

    You don’t need a lighter to romanticize cigarettes. Remember the 1966 song “Cigarettes and Coffee” by Otis Redding (and written by Jerry Butler, Eddie Thomas and Jay Walker)? In his gravelly sad voice, Redding sang:

    “It’s early in the morning,
    about a quarter till three,
    I’m sitting here talkin’ with my baby,
    over cigarettes and coffee, now.”

    Hopefully, we’ll get to a place where the romanticism is in the memory, and lighters will only be good for collecting and not for lighting up a cigarette.

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