Friday, October 30
"America is one long expectoration."
Oscar Wilde on his first visit to the United States, 1882
In the late 19th century United States and Australia spittoons became a very common feature of saloons, hotels, stores, banks, railway carriages, and other places where people (especially adult men) gathered.
Brass was the most common material for spitoons. Other materials used for mass production of spittoons ranged from basic functional iron to elaborately crafted cut glass and fine porcelain. At higher class places like expensive hotels, spittoons could be elaborately decorated.
Spittoons are flat-bottomed, often weighted to minimize tipping over, and often with an interior "lip" to make spilling less likely if they tip. Some have lids, but most not. Some have holes, sometimes with a plug, to aid in draining and cleaning.
Use of spittoons was considered an advance of public manners and health, intended to replace previously common spitting on floors, streets, and sidewalks. Many places passed laws against spitting in public other than into a spittoon.
Some people of this era objected to restrictions on where they could spit as an infringement on their individual rights. Nonetheless, a larger segment of the public favored use of spittoons. Boy Scout troops organized campaigns to paint "DO NOT SPIT ON THE SIDEWALK" notices on city sidewalks. A mass produced sign seen in many saloons read:
If you expect to rate as a gentleman
Do not expectorate on the floor
Spittoons were also useful for people suffering from tuberculosis who would cough up phlegm. Public spittoons would sometimes contain a solution of an antiseptic such as carbolic acid with the aim of limiting transmission of disease. With the start of the 20th century medical doctors urged tuberculosis sufferers to use personal pocket spittoons instead of public ones; these were jars with tight lids which people could carry with them to spit into. Similar devices are still used by some with tuberculosis.
After the 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 spit-inducing chewing tobacco. While it was still not unusual to see spittoons in some public places in parts of the US as late as the 1930s, vast numbers of old brass spittoons met their ends in the scrap drives of World War II.
A large, publicly accessible collection of spittoons can be found at Duke Homestead State Historic Site, Durham, North Carolina. In 2008, the site's tobacco museum added 282 spittoons--claimed to be the world's largest collection--to its earlier holdings of over 100.