The very word “cuspidor” conjures a long-lost era of handlebar moustaches, barbershop quartets, and high starched collars, and yet we might be surprised at how long cuspidors lingered in public use. For a long time, you see, Cincinnati was a nicotine powerhouse, located at the geographic center of thousands of farms planted with fine tobacco. In 1902 alone, Cincinnati produced 1,695,000 pounds of chewing tobacco and 271,003,000 cigars. Cigarettes were considered low-class and caught on only later.
Most men who indulged—and most men did indulge—opted for cigars or chaw or both. Consequently, any space in which men congregated was decorated with abundant cuspidors or, less daintily, “spittoons.” In 1913, solid brass cuspidors sold for anywhere from 59 cents to 79 cents, depending on size.
You would find such receptacles, of course, in saloons and billiard parlors, but also in every government building, business office, waiting room, hotel, and even society’s finest homes. A book of manners, published in Cincinnati in 1855, notes that there were few limits imposed upon tobacco chewing:
“It is presumed that no person aspiring to be thought a gentleman will soil the carpets, or make a spittoon a necessary part of church furniture.”
Apparently, only churches and schools lacked spitting receptacles. The dearth in schools was recounted by William C. Smith in his delightful 1959 book, Queen City Yesterdays:
“Our teacher of arithmetic, ‘Daddy Orr,’ had the chewing habit himself and at times indulged during class. He could hold the juice for some time, but at the end of the limit of his retentive power he would then casually walk to the door, stick his head out into the hall and shoot the contents down the stairs. This habit resulted in a happy accident that made student life worth living for a considerable period. On that occasion Daddy fired a stream of the golden fluid down the stairs just as the Principal rounded the corner on the landing halfway below. How much the Principal actually received in the way of decoration we pupils never knew but that we enjoyed the episode is an understatement. As we were all fond of ‘Daddy Orr’ and had no time for the Principal, we felt that Providence was on the job and that justice had been done.”
Smith, recalling his childhood in the 1880s, has such comprehensive memories of the devil’s weed that it’s obvious he was an early adopter:
“Chewing tobacco came packed in wooden containers, each holding a dozen or more one-pound plugs. A slicing machine for cutting pound plugs into five and ten cent cuts was in evidence on the counter. Star, Horseshoe, Gravely, and Splendid were popular brands of chewing tobacco; scrap, the left-over cuttings in the manufacture of cigars, was favored by those addicts of the weed who preferred the straight article without sweetening or flavor; this was sold in plain paper bags at five cents. Fine cut, another type of chewing tobacco, was shredded, sweetened, and flavored and was packaged in a large wooden bucket and sold by the ounce. Twist, just plain tobacco in a twisted roll, was used for both chewing and smoking.”
Prior to 1900, cigarettes were more often herbal and medicinal than filled with tobacco. They were associated with women and ne’er-do-wells. Real men smoked cigars and chewed tobacco. The tide began to turn in the 1920s as men and women switched to cigarettes as a cleaner, less obnoxiously smelly alternative to cigars. The gypsy bandits and Arab sheiks portrayed on the silver screen by heartthrob Rudolph Valentino did not chew plug tobacco but smoked cigarettes, exhaling pheromones with every puff. Almost overnight, cigarettes became sexy and chewing tobacco was judged gross and old-fashioned.
The Cincinnati Post’s legendary columnist, Alfred Segal, marked the decline on October 18, 1929:
“There are people who think there will always be a cuspidor handy. Yes. Wise guys. It is this scoffing attitude that is responsible for the disappearance of the brontosaurus.”
Segal was prescient, though traditions lingered even as tastes changed. By 1936, as City Hall remodeled Council Chambers, there was no argument that spittoons remained a necessary fixture. The only debate surrounded whether to spend $8 each on new brass spittoons or to keep the antiquated ceramic cuspidors located at each councilmember’s chair.
Even though a delegation from the Cincinnati Woman’s Club implored the Cincinnati Federal Building to remove all cuspidors in 1907 to comply with a city ordinance against public expectoration, the brass receptacles were still in place 40 years later. On July 10, 1948, longtime Enquirer columnist Ollie James reported that 120 of 220 Federal Building spittoons had been removed on orders from Washington.
“Somewhere, in some dark and deserted storeroom of the Federal Building, are 120 lonely, retired cuspidors. No longer are cigar butts bonging merrily on their brassy brows; no longer are tobacco cuds nestling cozily in their brazen bosoms; no longer are their innards filled with cool, cool water.”
Of course this meant that 100 spittoons were still scattered around Cincinnati’s Federal Building in 1948, presumably receiving regular expectorations.
A year later, another Enquirer scribe, Mildred Miller, described [June 7, 1949] the fruitless quest of one Bill Barlow, “well known publicity man,” to purchase a brass cuspidor with which to commemorate the golden wedding anniversary of his pal, Clifford White. According to Barlow, White was fond of a good “chaw” and a brass spittoon resembled gold enough to mark this auspicious wedding anniversary. (There is no mention of Mrs. White’s opinions on her husband’s peccadillos.) In any event, Mildred reports, there was not a single new brass spittoon to be had in all of Cincinnati in 1949. After visiting eight commercial establishments, Barlow’s quest was unfulfilled.
“Finally someone suggested he go to a second-hand shop on Pearl Street. He went there, only to find a battered-up brass cuspidor which he wouldn’t consider.”
Ollie James returned to the topic on March 27, 1951, noting that chewing tobacco sales were only one-third of the volume 25 years previously. Even so, Post business reporter Dick Gordon noted [July 26, 1951] that 20 percent of American offices still kept cuspidors on conspicuous display.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that spittoons appeared positively passé. Perhaps the ultimate example was an advertisement on December 10, 1960 for the Gentry Shops at Swifton Center. For just $4.95, the shop offered a brass cuspidor filled with sand for use as an ash tray! And yet, as late as 1966, there were still six functioning spittoons at the U.S. Capitol.
Of course, what goes around almost always comes around again. The Enquirer advertised [February 24, 1970] a “Magnificent Gleaming Authentic Brass Cuspidor, The Ultimate in Collector’s Masterpieces” for just $9.95.
“Use it as the perfect planter or as the ideal accent piece for your den or fireplace … it will surely be the focal point wherever you display it. Makes a wonderful gift. A genuine piece of Americana that will definitely become an heirloom in your family.”