The Rise and Fall of Spittoons in the United States

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Decorated Surinam porcelain spittoon. Note this type of spittoon has a spout hole on the side for emptying.

Spittoons, bowl-shaped vessels into which tobacco chewers spit, were widely used in public in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Even though cigarettes existed in the United States during the 19th century, they were not nearly as popular as chewing tobacco. In order to accommodate the excess saliva chewers expectorated, spittoons were placed in public buildings ranging from taverns to courtrooms, railroad cars, and used in private homes.

American Spittoon Usage in the 19th Century

From the days of the early settlers in 17th century Virginia, tobacco has been grown and marketed in the United States. As a result of the growing number of people who chewed tobacco, spittoons became a common sight during the 19th century. The number of spittoons in use reached its peak from 1880 to 1918. In fact, in 1880, the Boston Fire Department owned 260 spittoons. Spittoons were so common in public that their presence was one of the topics discussed at annual conferences of the United States Public Health Service.

Spittoons were designed to sit on a flat surface, most often on the floor. They were round and had a funnel-shaped covering. In theory, men were supposed to spit tobacco juice on to the funnel covering and it would go into the hole in the center. In reality, most of the time, the general direction of the spittoon was reached but the final destination ended up being on the floor.

Regulating Spittoons in Passenger Trains

By 1913, the use of spittoons was a topic of the 11th Annual Conference of State and Territorial Health Officers with the United States Public Health Service. Rupert Blue, Surgeon General, in his letter of March 13, 1913, announcing the date and location of the conference wrote, “Among the matters to come before the conference…sanitation of public conveyances.” At the conference, held on June 16, 1913, in Minneapolis, doctors and other health officials discussed whether there should or should not be spittoons in day coaches on trains. Some locations required porters on the trains to control or monitor the use of spittoons, “so that if people traveling have to expectorate they can have a spittoon.”

At the 13th annual Public Health Service Conference, held May 13, 1915, in Washington, D.C., the discussion about spittoons ranged from regulation to how usage influenced social customs and public health. The matter was referred to a committee on sanitation of public conveyances for written rules throughout all states and territories regarding consistency of size and number of spittoons used on public transportation.

The recommendation by the special committee was that spittoons should be cleaned frequently and that every smoking compartment would have at least two spittoons. When an entire car was used for smoking and chewing tobacco, the recommendation was for one spittoon every three seats. If the railroads wanted to offer more than the recommended number, that would be their option.

Dangers of Spittoons and the Spread of Tuberculosis

After the number of spittoons for smoking compartments and day smoking cars was agreed upon, concern was expressed regarding ease of access by passengers. Since the recommendation was to have one spittoon for every three seats in a day smoking car, then for people not seated next to a spittoon, they would have to spit over the seats and passengers to reach the nearest one. The conference then suggested changing the recommendation from one spittoon for every three seats to one for every two seats.

Having a day smoking car would take the spittoons out of the first class coaches. Ladies in first class would no longer have to pick up their skirts to step over the spittoons. The committee members pointed out that some spittoons were 6 or 8 inches high. They should not be in cars where they are not used.

Another reason why the conference wanted regulations for spittoons was to prevent lawsuits from potential accidents. Without regulating the placement and storage of spittoons, then if anyone, male or female, tripped and fell over a spittoon, they could potentially claim damages from the railroad.

Concern over the spread of tuberculosis put an end to the wide-spread use of spittoons. As part of the 1915 Public Health Service Conference, doctors stated that sputum was collected in Louisiana from people of various professions whether they were tobacco chewers or not. The findings showed that out of every 1,000 samples, 26 had tuberculosis.

Spittoons in Modern Times

Spittoons, also called cuspidores, are still in use in modern times but in limited ways. They are used for wine-tasting, and are the small porcelain sink next to a dentist’s chair. The floor of the U.S. Senate has spittoons as a symbol of a bygone era.

The poor aim around spittoons is depicted in a painting in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. This mural, A Social History of Missouri by Thomas Hart Benton, is located in the House Lounge and is a series of scenes from the early settlers to the cities during the 1930s. One scene shows a courtroom trial in progress and a spittoon on the floor surrounded by saliva made brown by tobacco.

Sources:

  1. Transactions of the Eleventh Annual Conference of State and Territorial Health Officers with the United States Public Health Service, 1913, Public Health Bulletin No. 63, Washington Government Printing Office, pp. 5 and 58.
  2. Transactions of the Thirteenth Annual Converence of State and Territorial Health Officers with the United States Public Health Service, 1915, Public Health Bulletin No. 72, Washington Government Printing Office, pp. 35-37.