Spittoons: What Were These Gross Things?

Guybrush Threepwood in the Curse of Monkey Island near to a spittoon.
The spittoon in The Curse of Monkey Island (next to Guybrush Threepwood’s feet).

Back in the good old days, spitting men could spit into this thing called a spittoon. It was a bloody common thing all the time.

We first came across the things when playing The Curse of Monkey Island. You can even spit into it! But what the hell was the point, anyway? Let’s spit it out!

A Brief History of Spittoons

In the 19th century, spittoons became a very common feature of life in the United States. They were everywhere:

  • Pubs
  • Brothels
  • Railway stations
  • Stores
  • Hotels
  • Saloons

They were there largely for chewers of tobacco. Who’d chew on the stuff, then feel the need to gob into a brass spittoon.

These things were left on the floor and adult men would congregate around them, gobbing liberally into the spittoon (also called a cuspidor).

Over the course of the day, the thing would fill up with people’s spit. Then some poor bastard had to get the thing and empty all the gob. Lovely.

You can imagine in the Wild West just how fetid and brazenly macho the whole situation was. Something that’s played upon in Red Dead Redemption II.

Of course, America wasn’t the only country to do this gross thing. It was big in Australia, too, and also a huge deal in China for a long time.

We visited China in 2007 and generally found citizens had a relaxed attitude to bodily functions. Us polite Brits were pretty shocked to find they’d happily let rip and whatnot whenever they felt like it.

And in China, the spittoon was a big deal up until the 1980s. But when the media outside of China saw Deng Xiaoping (paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China) gobbing into a spittoon at any time of day, much mockery followed.

This led to social reform, with spittoons removed from polite society. Although it seems the Chinese do miss them.

In fact, in 2015 the Spittoon Collective came about in China. To go with that, there’s a spittoon magazine that publishes. Nice.

The Health Problems With Spittoons

Spittoons were pretty common in public locations throughout the early 20th century. There are pictures of the little containers on the floor in American courtrooms from 1910.

After their introduction, the idea was to improve public health and manners.

Before the spittoon, people (i.e. mainly adult men) just gobbed wherever they felt like it. To stop that, some American laws came into place to enforce the use of a spittoon.

But having an open container sitting about slowly filling up with saliva… isn’t a healthy thing to do for anyone.

Sputum (great word!) was linked to the spread of tuberculosis in the 1880s. So at first, spittoons seemed like a great life saver. A way of stopping people spitting all over the bloody place and spreading disease.

But then problems with the concept started to appear. Such as, you know, being an issue with tuberculosis.

It was clearly a common issue in France at the start of the 20th century, as doctors pushed a message of “Le crachat, voilà l’ennemi!” (“Spitting, that is the enemy!”).

In 1902, Maurice Letulle wrote in La Lutte contre la tuberculose en France:

"A single sick worker can contaminate an incalculable number of his comrades, the foremen, and even the bosses; since bacillus-laden crachats are lying on the ground everywhere! Woe to the shoe sole that picks them up. In the street, on stairways, at home... in all places, the hideous homicidal crachat will be there."

A certain French journalist called Dr. Ox (writing for Le Matin) stated:

“I must note in passing the open spittoon that the fly dips its legs in before wiping them off in the sugar bowl, for the fly is one of the great traveling salesmen of tuberculosis."

So, with TB spreading about the place in society, having open spittoons for everyone to do their macho stuff wasn’t a good idea.

It seems simple, of course. Just make people stop spitting. But as we’re seeing with our coronavirus pandemic, getting mass society to behave in an orderly fashion isn’t always easy.

We’d happily bet the doctor’s anti-spitting messages across the globe were met with reactions such as:

  • It’s my right to spit, therefore I shall.
  • My father was a spitter, his was a spitter, and his father before him was a spitter. So I will spit!
  • Nanny state, PC garbage! I’ve been gobbing all me life and don’t have no problems. *coughs up lungs in a fit of TB unpleasantness*

The US clung to spittoons a little longer, but the terrible 1918 flu pandemic, the popularity of smoking, and a shift in public opinions did lead to the end of the humble spittoon.

You don’t see them anywhere these days (except in museums). Good. A disgusting relic of bizarre human habits bit the dust.

Now if just need to get bellend blokes in Manchester to stop gobbing. Geezers, it doesn’t make you look tough. You just look stupid.

14 comments

  1. Okay… people..I see mostly men, are still spitting in the streets. I see it every time I go out.
    Spit, spit, gob, sputum!
    So, the street has become the modern day spittoon.
    My mom inherited a brass spittoon. She filled it with pussy willows.
    I have inherited a brass spittoon. Mine is filled with decades of red roses from lovers.
    Okay, the roses at the bottom are now rose dust. Where does that leave us.
    It leaves us with the reality that it is not the spittoon, but men (mostly… never saw a woman do it) still need to spit somewhere. Obviously, they have not heard of handkerchiefs, or more modernly the personal tissue…KLEENEX.
    Spitters are the problem, not the poor spittoon.

    Liked by 1 person

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