The last time I went, however, I found something in the collection -- several somethings actually -- that could solve my cold hands problem. Now the only question I have is how did these things work? Did people seriously light something that looks like an oversized cigarette lighter and use it to keep their hands warm? Even more intriguing, do they still do it? After I started typing this, I remembered the wonders of Google and, voila, I discovered a company called Sundance (as in Robert Redford's Sundance) still sells them. They have a "Vintage 1962 Pocket Hand Warmer" for a mere $15. It looks very similar to the one pictured. As for the fuel? Apparently it takes ordinary cigarette lighter fuel and will burn for up to 8 hours.
I'm not sure just what the time period was for the ones the museum owns, but they must have been fairly popular because the museum has about half a dozen of them scattered through various displays. There were three in an exhibit that's otherwise all items relating to smoking (matchbooks, cigar boxes, information on the old cigar factory in Baraga, an art nouveau cigarette case that's so tiny it looks like it was meant to hold candy cigarettes instead of real ones) but no instruction booklets. I have a hunch that whoever set up that display didn't recognize them as hand warmers, although you never know. Maybe she did know and just thought they looked cool. I made a note and one of these days I'll do some serious research and figure out when they first hit the market. It's always good to include a little info with an artifact letting visitors know just what the object is, when it was first used, and if/when it went out of fashion or was discontinued. Most people I know now opt for the chemical hand warmers, probably because they're slightly more convenient (Grabbers makes warmers you can stuff in your boots) so there are bound to be more and more museum visitors who will look at the vintage warmers and have no idea what they are.
That same exhibit includes one item that really highlights how attitudes toward smoking have changed: an ash tray from St. Joseph Hospital in Hancock, Michigan. Can anyone imagine a modern hospital paying to have its name embossed on ash trays? An antique dealer told me a couple years ago that ash trays are going to be a hot item as a collectible in a few years because so many people are throwing them away now. I'm dubious, but you never know.