The Secrets Of Cigarette Dispensers Revealed

The Secrets Of Cigarette Dispensers Revealed – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – June 2000

By Bill Towne

Motivation to begin a collection can sometimes come when you least expect it. Twenty years ago I began collecting traveling cups and claws. Some of them were the collapsible type; others had their own leather protective case. Eventually I moved into children’s cups depicting characters and scenes from nursery rhymes.

Then one day I was at a show in search of more of these items when I happened upon an unusual looking item. It was comprised of a wooden bird that swiveled down to receive a cigarette in its beak from a “secret” hinged door in the bottom of the box.

I was both intrigued and repulsed by the item, because only the month before I had been hypnotized to quit smoking and I was afraid the piece would rekindle my urge to smoke. I passed on the item that day, but went back the next day and purchased it in spite of my fears. From that day on I was hooked on cigarette dispensers.

At first I believed dispensers came only in the form of the bird and box, but over the years I have discovered an immense array of items produced from the 1920s to the 1960s designed to deliver a cigarette. The most recognizable dispensers are the aforementioned bird in the box dispenser. These items were manufactured in Japan around 1925. The intricate workings consist of springs and pulleys concealed in the base and covered by the wooden bottom.

Another popular piece produced in the 1920s and 1930s is the genie dispenser. Its basic design is similar to that of a cookie jar with a wooden lid. Cigarettes were placed inside, then enter a chamber to await retrieval. When the lever on the base is depressed, the cigarette is dispensed out of the genie’s mouth.

Other dispensers are disguised as music boxes, champagne bottles, even boats with dancing ballerinas and a gondolier. The ingenuity that went into producing a device that would deliver a product as simple as a cigarette never ceases to amaze me.

One interesting subcategory of these item is the “toy dispensers” mostly manufactured in the 1930s and 1960s. They introduced children to cigarettes in a fun way, through candy cigarette dispensers, walking cigarette packs, charm bracelets, and even a small plastic cigarette “factory”. If there was ever a doubt that tobacco companies were trying to steer children toward the “pleasures” of smoking these items prove otherwise.

Just when it started to become almost impossible to find cigarette related items at antique shows and shops, along came eBay, the internet shopping Mecca. Daily, hundreds of items related to smoking are listed for sale, auction style. With the click of the mouse, you can view an item, place a bid and hopefully add to your collection. Generally, in spite of the auction style of eBay, prices are found to be somewhat lower than in conventional antique shops and shows. Regardless, there are still a large number of items changing hands on a daily basis.

Who can forget the other items associated with the tobacco products? Cigarette advertising lighters (still fairly common), punch boards, and even a combination lighter/dispenser that attached to the steering column of your car and connected to the fuse box (when the lever is depressed a cigarette is automatically lit and conveniently dispensed to you while you drive) have all been produced.

Who can forget buying their first pack of candy cigarettes at the corner store? At one time even “brand names” were available.

On many occasions I’ve discovered a piece in a shop that even the shop owner was unaware it was actually designed to dispense tobacco products. Many are musical and ornate to the point of being gaudy.

My reasons for collecting these items are many. First of all, it is my former addiction to tobacco.

Second, the in-creasing regulations and law-suits involving tobacco, keep the subject in the public eye. Finally, I recognize the fact that it’s unlikely anyone will ever produce such intricate and detailed items for this purpose again.

Books on the subject are few and far between. Sometimes only a small section on cigarette dispensers will be included in publications devoted mainly to cigarette lighters. Many lighter clubs and cigarette pack collector clubs exist, but people who collect dispensers are a rare breed.

The increased scarcity of these items and the controversy surrounding tobacco use in this country has caused the price of these item to steadily increase. My greatest pleasure comes from hearing people tell me about having seen an item similar to one of mine at their grandparent’s house when they were young and cigarettes were still popular.

These items are remnants of a bygone era. Their nostalgic appeal and their intricate designs make then well worth collecting and preserving as a reminder of the history and fading popularity of tobacco use in this country. One thing is certain: it’s only a matter of time before the obvious dangers associated with smoking will make the items associated with it—lighters, ashtrays and especially dispensers, once so common—eventually became obsolete and, therefore, highly collectible.

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