John Nelson’s photograph, 1907-1917, of the interior of a bar includes several spittoons on the floor. NSHS RG3542-95-20 (Left).
During the late nineteenth century spittoons became a common feature of saloons, hotels, stores, banks, railway carriages, and other places where adult men gathered. Many localities passed laws against public spitting other than into a spittoon, but such laws were seldom enforced. Some people of this era objected to restrictions on where they could spit as an infringement on their individual liberty. Nonetheless, anti-spitting sentiment was growing. The Norfolk Weekly News-Journal on September 7, 1906, reported a recent move by the federal government to end spitting on the floors of federal buildings, ostensibly to prevent the spread of disease. The News-Journal said:
“In the Norfolk federal building, in several prominent places, there has been recently hung the following sign: ‘Please Do Not Spit on the Floor. To Do So May Spread Disease.’” As a result, there had been a noticeable decrease in the number of persons “who have unintentionally used the post office lobby for a place to expectorate.” A local ordinance, which provided for a fine of from one to ten dollars for spitting in public places, had not previously been enforced.
A Handlan Company catalog page from 1893 illustrating spittoons/cuspidors for sale.
Read more of the News-Journal’s article in a Timeline column on the Nebraska State Historical Society website. Read about the lack of spittoons that plagued the 1897 Nebraska Legislature (and what was done about it) in History Minute 053, also on the NSHS website.
— Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications