School Haze

It being back-to-school time, we thought we’d find an education-related artifact for this week’s What-in-the-WORLD?-Wednesday contest. Problem is, most of the school-related digitized artifacts in Maine Memory Network or the MHS online museum catalog are perfectly recognizable: letters for jackets, pins, trophies, medals, buttons, badges, bags, desks, and bells, to name a few. (See the Maine Memory variety here.)

And then up popped something far more obscure looking–this seemingly flat, rectangular, vaguely-etched piece of metal, in not such good shape. Not only would this piece be much harder to identify than some school pin, its former purpose in life is, er, antithetical to our contemporary image of education, what with its focus on youth and their well-being (at least that’s the idea, anyway).

However, for circa 1950, the ballpark date for this item, it was an eminently practical object, a natural item on which to imprint the image of a school (that’s what’s etched in the center) and hand out to parents and alumni, or sell as a fundraising item. Although still heavily in use today, they were far more ubiquitous then–found in virtually every household, not to mention business, organization, and institution. You can see them in every single episode of Mad Men, for example, and if they weren’t there, the sets would look a lot messier.

Yes, it’s a ashtray. A school souvenir ashtray, to be specific, from Portland’s Nathan Clifford School. (An elementary school, no less!) Made in Japan, the school building appears in the center, while the edges feature dragons and rounded edges. Other than the Japanese origin, the dragons are a mystery. (Today, the school is the home of the “Comets” but perhaps that wasn’t always the case. Anyone know?)

Chances are, this would probably not be a hot item to hand out to the friends, former students, and boosters of Nathan Clifford School today. But, to collectors, a souvenir is a souvenir, and if you search for “school ashtray” on eBay, you’ll come up with a selection to choose from.

Many thanks to our creative responders on Facebook. We did have a few people who logically guessed tray–but for a much healthier purpose like serving fish or caviar. Printing plate and license plate were two other clever ideas. One person, who clearly could see the outline of building, even went so far as to imagine, “It’s a Japanese license plate commemorating the laying of the cornerstone of the Maine State Office Building.”

Good call on the Japanese part anyway!


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