The spittoon has just about disappeared from the American scene. In the late 19th century United States, spittoons were a very common feature in pubs, brothels, saloons, hotels, stores, banks, court rooms, and other places where people gathered. I recall seeing spittoons scattered around in our Court House, and even in churches as a young lad.
The present generation probably has never seen one of these receptacles as they have about worked their way out of our society. However, I can almost guarantee that most of their great grandparents used them. Most men used chewing tobacco, “Days Work”, being a good example. Most women dipped snuff, “Garrett Snuff”, another good example. Chewing and dipping tobacco required a place to spit, and in the late 1800s it was usually the floor or sidewalk.
I remember my father, Cecil, who was a painting and paperhanging contractor before he was elected County Clerk in 1938, telling of giving the pastor of a rural church an estimate on painting the inside. He asked the preacher what color of paint he wanted from the floor to about three feet up the wall. The pastor thought a moment then said, “The closest color to Garrett snuff that you can find.” Apparently the chewing members were often missing the spittoons and splattering tobacco juice on the walls.
Brass was the most common material for the spittoon. However, materials for mass production of spittoons ranged from iron to elaborately crafted cut glass and fine porcelain. At higher class places like expensive hotels, spittoons would be elaborately decorated.
Spittoons were flat-bottomed, often weighted to minimize tipping over, and often with an interior “lip” to make spilling less likely if they tip. Some had lids, but they were rather rare. Some had holes, sometimes with a plug, to aid in draining and cleaning.
Amazingly, the use of spittoons was considered an advance of public manners and health, intended to replace previously common spitting on floors, streets, and sidewalks. Many towns passed laws against spitting in public other than into a spittoon. Around 1909 the Boy Scouts organized campaigns to paint “Do Not Spit On The Sidewalk” notices on city sidewalks. This campaign caught hold with members of the Anti-Tuberculosis League who painted thousands of such messages in a single day. Soon signs were seen in saloons that read:
If you expect to rate as a gentleman
Do not expectorate on the floor.
After the great 1918 flu epidemic, both hygiene and etiquette advocates began to disparage public use of the spittoon, and use began to decline. Chewing gum replaced tobacco as the favorite chew of the younger generation. Cigarettes were considered more hygienic than chewing and dipping tobacco. While it was still not unusual to see spittoons in some public places in parts of the United States as late as the 1930s, vast numbers of old brass spittoons met their ends in the scrap metal drives of World War II.
While spittoons are still made, they are no longer commonly found in public places. A rare profession which commonly uses spittoons is that of a wine taster. A wine taster will sip samples of wine and then spit into a spittoon in order to avoid alcohol intoxication.
Strangely, each Justice of the United States Supreme Court has a spittoon next to his or her seat in the courtroom. However, the spittoons function merely as wastebaskets; the last time the spittoon was used for its customary purpose was in the early 20th century. In addition, tradition makes it necessary for the U.S. Senate to have spittoons spread across the Senate Chamber to this day.
In this the 21st century, people who still chew and dip tobacco have generally made for themselves a small portable spittoon called a “spit cup”. This consists of a Styrofoam cup with a paper napkin stuffed inside which is carried on their person and kept rather private and hidden. For this we are very appreciative.
Spittoons are now the objects of collectors. The largest collection of the cuspidors can be found at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina. This museum boasts of 382 spittoons, claimed to be the world’s largest collection. Personally, they are welcome to all of them.
BY: NEAL MURPHY
107 HEMLOCK STREET
PO BOX 511
SAN AUGUSTINE, TX 75972