Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A spittoon (or spitoon) is an article of furniture made for spitting into, especially by users of chewing tobacco. It is also known as a cuspidor, although that term is also used for a type of spitting sink used in dentistry.
Similar receptacles for spitting had been used in Southwest Asia for centuries. Spittoons appeared both in the United States and the United Kingdom under the same name about 1840. It has been suggested (perhaps humorously) that the name was in part onomatopoeia.
The era of the common spittoon in the United States
In the late 19th century United States spittoons became a very common feature of many places, including 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. None the less, 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 World War I 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. While it was still not unusual to see spittoons in some public places in parts the US as late as the 1930s, vast numbers of old brass spittoons met their ends in the scrap drives of World War II.
Spittoon in the Chinese Society
After China became a Communist state in 1949, the spittoon became much more prevalent: spittoons were placed at every conceivable public place, and were commonplace in homes as well. The mass introduction of spittoons was no doubt a public hygiene initiative, moltivated by a desire to correct the once common Chinese practice of spitting onto the floor. The spittoons used in China were typically made of white porcelain, sometimes with traditional Chinese art painted onto the exterior.
Spittoons were used even during official functions by the political leaders of China; this eventually became a source of ridicule by the mass media outside the Communist state. As a response, the spittoons have largely been withdrawn from public spaces in China since the late 1980s.
Later day spittoons
While spittoons are still made, they are no longer commonly found in public places.
A rare profession which commonly uses spittoons is that of wine taster. A wine taster will sip samples of wine and then spit them into a spittoon in order to avoid intoxication. At some wine tastings, you'll find spittoons for all tasters to use. Likewise for professional coffee tasters and tea tasters.
James Joyce claimed that to him, 'cuspidor' (a synonym of 'spittoon') was the most beautiful word in the English language.
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