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What is a Spittoon?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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A spittoon is a receptacle, usually a large jar, into which people expectorate (spit). For a while, especially in the United States up until the early 20th century, it was common to see spittoons in virtually every public place. Americans frequently chewed rather than smoked tobacco, and thus the need to spit somewhere was important. Having a large, usually weighted jar into which Americans could spit excess “juice” from tobacco was common practice not only in bars, but also in banks, hotels, restaurants, and offices. People also usually had them in their homes.

The spittoon was used in China during the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from the 17th through early 20th century. Several ceremonial practices had people spitting on the floor, and the Qing rulers sought to change that by providing porcelain receptacles instead. As of the 1980s, most people no longer use spittoons in China and they are rarely used in the US. One exception though is the use of the spittoon in wineries, where people may spit tasted wine into one. Most people simply swallow the wine, though this may be considered gauche among the most dedicated wine tasters.

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American spittoons were usually made of brass, and were weighted so they wouldn’t tip over. The obvious mess of cleaning up the contents of a spilled spittoon scarcely needs explanation. People would also use them to spit up mucus, and it can be thus stated that spittoons were about as hygienic as toilets, especially with the many people who suffered from tuberculosis. Some spittoons were fitted with drains, while others were simply dumped and washed out before reuse.

Though there were spittoons in the UK, they were in much less use than in the US. Use of tobacco in the UK tended toward either smoking it in pipes or taking it as snuff. British visitors were often shocked by the way American men seemed to spit constantly. Charles Dickens writes in a letter from America: “We are now in the regions of slavery, spittoons and senators—all three are evil in all countries, but the spittoon is the worst.” Of course Americans countered that noses dripping with snuff were just as disgusting.

As smoking tobacco became more popular, spittoons gradually became less used. Many would suggest we can only count ourselves fortunate that that was the case. Yet smoking led to lung cancer, as chewing often led to throat and tongue cancer, and it too has become a despicable habit that many find not only repugnant, but also highly dangerous. Many hope the ashtray will soon go the way of the spittoon and be viewed as a curiosity rather than a thing much used.

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