Cigarette Lighters the Size of Hardback Books

In the 1970s, I can say with the force of absolute truth, that if you smoked, and you were a guy, you carried a big Zippo lighter like you see in World War Two movies. A Zippo lighter weighed about as much as an iPhone and in addition to the lighter itself, you had to buy the required replacement parts: flints and lighter fluid and wicks. Using a Zippo imposed a lot of burdens but if you wanted to be cool you put up with these problems such as your Zippo leaking lighter fluid and setting your pants on fire.

You could also buy disposable lighters everywhere. Cheap ones went for twenty-five cents and were filled with butane gas. Naturally, you could take them on airplanes. “Your flammable butane lighters always welcomed! What the hell, bring a dozen.” Businesses often gave cigarette lighters as gifts and if you had a Zippo which had been a gift that was even more cool than if you bought it yourself.

Yet the most curious thing I remember from my smoking days were the hideously ugly coffee-table cigarette lighters from the 1970s. These were cigarette lighters which you placed on your coffee table since these giant lighters were décor accessories, impractical as they were. I remember ones as large as one foot by one foot or even bigger. (Some were smaller.) You didn’t, or couldn’t, pick the lighter up since some were set in blocks of acrylic or even in stone.

People have had table lighters of various sorts for centuries but usually that meant a small tobacco lighter on a stand. You picked the lighter up from the stand and lighted your cigar or pipe or later, cigarette. You didn’t pick up the entire stand. The table lighters I remember from the 1970s were the size of large books. You had to bend down to light your cigarette, sometimes bending in half or even getting on your knees and sticking your face practically into the flame. Try doing this when you’re drunk. It ain’t so easy. As a youth, I more than once burned myself doing this.

I can best describe the ugly table lighters of the 1970s by asking you to imagine this: a phone book covered with fake reddish/orangish plastic alligator hide. In the middle of it is a small cigarette lighter. That’s it. This is one of those things that seem laughable and ridiculous even at the time but people paid a lot for them so you would never insult a friend by lampooning their table top cigarette lighters.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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