Reflections on Spittoons

B. Nash with a "fake" spittoon


One can picture Abraham Lincoln sitting at his desk in the law office chewing tobacco and using a spittoon placed on the floor at his feet.  Yes one could easily imagine that scene. But that image would be false. Abraham Lincoln didn’t chew tobacco. He didn’t smoke cigars. It would have been highly unlikely that he used a spittoon-except maybe to spit saliva. The use of spittoons was common in the 19th century and into the 20th century. They were everywhere! Mostly used by men, they were common in floor areas of banks, saloons, brothels, and barbershops. It was perfectly normal for a person to use them in such places. I do imagine that members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) used them during their meetings at their local G.A.R. posts. Spittoons were considered an innovation in public health practice. Before the use of spittoons, or cuspidors (as they’re sometimes called),  people just spat on the ground or the sidewalk. That practice was more likely to lead to the spread of disease  (I suppose).  Sometimes the spittoons would have certain antiseptics placed in them-although that was probably rare. One wonders how many important business meetings were made while the gentlemen sat around shooting out tobacco into the vessels. Even Presidents of the United States used them. There is a photograph of Franklin Roosevelt sitting at a desk with a spittoon nearby. Of course, that doesn’t mean he used it. Ladies would also use them-usually at home. It was thought to be good mannered to see a lady chewing tobacco or using a spittoon in public. The spittoons mostly died out in the 1940’s. Many of them literally were used to provide metal for World War Two. When one imagines Abraham Lincoln moving about conducting business, just remember, a spittoon would have been found somewhere during his travels. Spittoons were part of the scenery of Lincoln’s everyday life.

There are many “fake” spittoons “out there” for sale. They can be found on the internet. The spittoon viewed in the picture above is a reproduction. It was probably made in the 1970’s.  It is very lightweight and tall. I own several genuine antique spittoons. They look nothing like the fake one in the picture. The antique spittoon in commonly short and heavy. It needed to be short and heavy so that it wouldn’t be tipped over easily. Unfortunately, spittoons were sometimes tripped over. As I sit and look at the spittoon near my desk at home, I think of Lincoln. Its an artifact that brings me back to his time and era now gone forever.

See the picture below. The spittoon pictured on the floor is genuine.

B. Nash with antique spittoon on floor

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3 Responses to “Reflections on Spittoons”

  1. Vincent Reilly says:

    Enjoyed your article while doing some research on my copper GAR spittoon. I bought it about 35 years ago for about $15.00 at a second hand store in Chicago. 10 inches tall and 9 inch circumference standing on four eagle-like legs. Weighs about 10 pounds and polishes very well. Tried to get help from GAR library in Chicago but no one could or wanted to help. Some people who have seen it believes it was meant for cigar smokers and would have been filled with sand. I can’t find any source that would know when it was made, how many, and for what kind of businessess.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated. VP Reilly :608-824-8782

  2. B. Nash says:

    Thank you Margaret. I’m so pleased you visited my site. Thanks for leaving the comment!

  3. Margaret D. Ross says:

    This is great!

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