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Cunard White Star Line, RMS Queen Mary Art Deco Bakelite ash trays, a guide to the used onboard & souvenir examples. 1936-1968.

by Jonathan Quayle |


A selection of small two rest ash trays, both the two coloured examples are marked 'souvenir' on the base and would have been sold onboard within the ships very own gift shop. The two black and white examples are those which were used onboard.

One of the most striking and iconic artefacts chosen for the RMS 'Queen Mary' in 1936, was the two tone Bakelite series of english Art Deco moderne ash trays. Originally designed in two sizes, the design proved so popular that it remained in constant use from its introduction on the Queen Mary in 1936, right up until 1968 when the last examples were used up on the retiring Queen Elizabeth, the designs longevity is nothing short of extraordinary. 

However the design itself predates use on the Queen Mary, produced in the early 1930's by the firm, British Buttner & co. The company mass produced the shape, in two sizes, one with four rests the large example for cigars & cigarettes, and one with two rests for cigarettes. The ashtrays were produced in a myriad of striking colours, red, blue, yellow, green as well various marbled effects are known to have been produced, sometimes referred to as the 'butterscotch' verities. On the whole the interior section of the two tone would be black or dark brown. The design proved very popular with the rapid spread of the Art Deco and Moderne movement across the country, so much so that the design was inevitably copied by various companies, serval well known names, so it seems the design was never officially registered or copyrighted. It should be mentioned now that although the design today is best know through its use on the Queen Mary and later fleet wide any ash tray without the name of the ship or any of the variants of the company name means the ash tray does not come from any of the Cunard White Star and Cunard liners, they date prior to that use and although historically interesting and iconic pieces of design in their own right, they have little value compared to used onboard examples. 

The striking modern design already so popular seemed an obvious choice when Cunard White Star Line were outfitting their new luxury liner taking shape on the shores of the Clyde in 1935. The iconic design was more than just a simple ash tray, it was produced in a relatively new material and seen as very hygienic, it was lightweight, perfect for a company looking at cutting down weight onboard as well as in dispatch when ordering. Also a lightweight but highly durable ash tray had the added benefit over their counterparts of silver plate, glass or ceramic varieties of yesteryear that where in comparison prohibitively expensive to produce over the relatively cheap mass produced early plastic, bakelite example. It's clever design meant when a table was non smoking the ash tray could be placed on its end and then taken away by a steward. The ash tray could easily be cleaned with a simple wipe down due to the new material. Also its stark modern look blended in well with the likewise sparsely decorated 'Plain Pine' silver service designed by the famous silversmiths, Elkington, as well as the bespoke ivory banded patterned china service designed by Copelands, all three came together beautifully complementing each other very well.

An interesting parallel developed in the manufacture of both the 1st (Cabin) class bone china service and these ashtrays. When chosen for use upon the new Cunarder the ash trays were produced in a very definite 'ivory' shade, as if the ash tray itself was produced out of the luxury exotic material. To create this effect the first batch of ashtrays had a ivory tone & finish added to them. In time this effect would ware off and as the years went by and new orders were produced the ash trays lost that 'yellow' or 'ivory' tone, by the time the last examples were being produced in the 1960's they were pure black & white. A similar development happened at Copelands and later Foley, again to create the air of luxury the fine bone china had a finish given to it to mimic exotic ivory, in the ships huge industrial dishwashers it was soon found this finish would wash off. Early Copelands china dating from 1936 looks positively yellow by comparison to the far lighter tones that ended up being employed until that service to was retired with the Queen Elizabeth in 1968.

The ashtrays were rolled out for use on the RMS 'Queen Mary' in 1936, The first line up consisted of large and small two tone black and ivory, used throughout the principal public rooms and staterooms. In the first batch the bulk of the ash tray both large and small bore the text, 'R.M.S. "Queen Mary"'.

One of the choicest souvenirs from the pre war Queen Mary were these highly desirable pieces of modern design that epitomised the style and grandeur of the pre war Cunarder. Made all the more desirable today a so few in relatively good condition survive, but also the tactile nature of these items. Today by owning one of these iconic ashtrays, from a simple photo you can time travel back to 1936, to the ships beautiful three story First Class Lounge, and be directly connected to history.

A comparison, showing the small two rest example, next to the rare seldom seen 'Chinese' red four rest example.

A more simple single moulded brown example, also produced in two sizes, produced by Fraser & Glass Ltd, was also employed and used throughout the ship. From 1936 until the late 1940's these simply read 'Cunard White Star' in a variant of the gothic text used upon the premium examples. Post 1940's into the 1950's and beyond they read 'Cunard Line' in the same text. These simple designed ashtrays had originated from the White Star Line in the late 1920's. After the companies merged the design was chosen to complement the premium example and for use in Third Class and officers/crew areas. The design again remained in use until the Queen Elizabeths retirement.

The premium two tone examples proved so popular on the ships maiden voyage that after docking in New York for the first time, it is reputed that staff were sent to the local branch of Woolworths to stock up on replacement ash trays for the return voyage as so many examples were 'removed' by excited passengers travelling on the new super liner. To counter this Cunard White Star, in a bid to stop pilfering of the Queen Mary branded ash trays, phased out those examples and replaced the ships name with the company's. The production run on the examples with the ships name was short lived, we can be fairly certain that no more named examples were ordered post WW2, its interesting to note that an example with the ships name was never produced for the Queen Elizabeth's maiden voyage post war. In due course post WW2 Cunard White Star was dropped to Cunard line, still in use on these until 1968.

In another attempt to quench the thirst of hungry Queen Mary passengers need for a ship branded ash tray as a souvenir, Cunard White Star very quickly started selling examples in the ships very own gift shops. To differentiate these from those from actual onboard use, these examples have the script signature on the underside reading:- 'Souvenir'. Only the small two rest ash tray was produced as a souvenir. Interestingly for the souvenir range different colours were produced, four colours were produced, Jade (marbled green) & black, pink marble & black, (Chinese) red & black as well as the standard black & white example. 

There are a few exceptions that were produced, at some stage a large red and black four rest example was produced, probably from the maiden voyage, and very short lived production run, only one is known to exist. It was not produced as a souvenir, due to its 'Chinese Red' its highly probable that it was produced exclusively for use within the ship Observation Bar, that rooms overriding theme being that colour, or possibly for use in the ships exclusive a'la carte restaurant, the iconic Verandah Grill, again a feast of bright colours. Small quantities of the small size two rest examples of the jade, red and pink ashtrays do turn up without the souvenir signature on the underside. I once spoke with a stewardess who served on the Maiden Voyage and she told me that in the suites these small coloured ash tray were used, which might explain why these escaped the souvenir markings.


A rare example of the 'Pink Jade' ashtray, this example does not have the 'Souvenir' script to the underside so was possibly issued onboard within one of the suites. C-1936.


A photo showing two pre war examples, the one on the left with a totally plain base, probably made for the ship within the first year, c-1936. The example to the left has an inset disk, again this is a used onboard example but a year or so later, possibly manufactured by another company. The indentation results to two batches being made, those for use onboard (plain, shown here) and those sold as souvenirs (the disk being filled with the inscription in script typeface 'souvenir').

An interesting side note, these ash trays can be restored, see the above pictures of both before and after. Its a tricky and sometimes risky path but can be very rewarding bringing back these little pieces of history to life. For further information please check out my block on how to restore them.



The following list is a rough guide to the ash tray use onboard:-



1. Large (four rests) & small (two rests) two tone ivory (white) & black, bearing the name:-

' R.M.S. "Queen Mary" '

Date from 1936, in use until, no later than 1939.

2. Large (four rests) two tone Chinese red & black, bearing the name:-

' R.M.S. "Queen Mary" '

Date from 1936, in use until, no later than 1939.

3. Small (two rests) two tone ivory (white) & black, red & black, pink & black, and green & black, bearing the name:-

' R.M.S. "Queen Mary" '

Date from 1936, in use until, no later than 1939. 

4. Small (two rests) two tone ivory (white) & black, red & black, pink & black, and green & black, bearing the name:-

' R.M.S. "Queen Mary" ' with the signature mark 'Souvenir' to the underside, as sold onboard within the ships gift shop.

Date from 1936, in use until, no later than 1939.

5. Large (four rests) & small (two rests) two tone ivory (white) & black, bearing the name:-

' Cunard White Star '

Date from the late 1930's, in use until around 1950's.

6. Large (four rests) & small (two rests) two tone ivory (white) & black, bearing the name:-

' Cunard Line '

Date from around 1950, in use until 1968.



A pair of ash tray, c-1936, both used onboard pieces sit proudly atop a table from the great Cunarders First Class Lounge. 

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