Bygone Treasures - Tobacciana and Phillumenists

By Michael Rice

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This is not a treatise on smoking, though I will say that the thought of stuffing dried leaves in my mouth and setting fire to them has never held much appeal.

Over the centuries, the tobacco industry has generated countless items to advertise their products and encourage tobacco use by enhancing the “smoking experience.” Many of these promotional items continue to be thrown away as folks pass on, estates are cleared and downsizing becomes important.

Tobacco pipes are one of the most widely collected areas of tobacciana. My non-smoking son worked in his university days for a prominent local tobacconist and became a bit of a pipe expert. He now has some 400 pipes in his personal collection, including a lovely example carved with the head of Paul Kruger, the President of the Boers during the Boer War. The majority of pipes are made of briar, which is the root burl of the White Heath, a tree that grows in the Mediterranean area. Other pipes are made of meerschaum (a white clay that yellows with age and is often mistaken for ivory) and corncobs, such as smoked by General MacArthur in the last war. If you have a few old pipes, don’t chuck them out, as collectors will buy them. Better brands include Dunhill, Petersen, Ashton and Stanwell, while others are interesting for the shapes of their bowls or curves of their stems.

Where there’s smoke, there must be fire, which means matches and lighters. A phillumenist is a collector of matchbook covers, someone you may prejudge as boring at parties and who wears mismatched socks, but who has great appreciation for the history these covers represent. Match covers are like little posters; given away to promote motels, ship lines, politicians and soda pop. They turn up by the bread bag full in overheated attics and should be removed promptly to prevent self-combustion from downsizing your two-storey home. They’ll also gladden the heart of a serious collector who will remove the staples and matches and only retain the covers.

A lighter was once as common in a pocket or purse as loose change or a lipstick. While a potential weapon to be seized at airports or waved at rock concerts, lighters are also a metal canvas for a cigarette brand, a warship name or an acknowledgement of Mr. Abernathy’s retirement after 40 years of obscurity in the mailroom. Table lighters and stand lighters in combination with a slot for cigarettes are much in demand. A pocket Dunhill lighter, Japanese lacquered in the 1930s just sold on eBay for $1,750.

All smokers had ashtrays. An early popular design showed an airplane handle “flying” over the tray itself. The plane and tray were brightly chromed, and these are worth over $100 today. Even Las Vegas casino ashtrays from the ‘50s and ‘60s spark interest.

Cigarette cases were often made of sterling silver and have value for the silver content. Most are melted down to be reborn as modern functional or esthetically pleasing objects.

For many years, cigarettes and loose tobacco were sold in colourful tins. Some had a practical afterlife, such as the Dixie Queen Cut Plug tin, which had a handle and was used as a lunchbox by school kids. The “flat 50s” tins we may remember were used to store nuts and bolts or buttons.

As paper promotions, tobacco companies added insert cards (one per package) in sets of 25 or 50. Soldiers, royalty, flowers and trains are just a few of the many types available. Some of the inserts were made of silk, which young ladies sewed together to make handkerchiefs or cushion covers.

Remember that push bar on the door of your corner store? Or the long metal thermometer tacked up on the wall outside? While many of these advertised soft drinks, there were ones that advertised tobacco too, all given away to the storeowner to serve as year-round advertisements. Inside the store were poster size ads in bright colours promoting popular brands. I recall our long vanished Braefoot Grocery Store in Saanich displaying a Sportsman fisherman poster, and would like one now, just for the memory.

Comments and suggestions for future columns are welcome and can be sent to Michael Rice P.O. Box 86 Saanichton B.C. V8M 2C3 or via email to




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