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By Stewart Emmens on

Spitting The Target

We spend most of our daily lives surrounded by things. Many of which we barely notice. They’re always just there. Lampposts, telephones, pens, kettles, books… They may change in appearance, but certain stuff always seems to keep hanging around. Until, those times you realise that you can’t recall the last time you actually saw one of these ubiquitous items. Typewriters anyone?

I’m fascinated by how objects make that transition from commonplace and everyday to banishment, and the ranks of the ‘disappeared’. Fashions change and technological advances are a big factor, but sometimes other forces are at play. 

Examples of these lost objects are often revealed in old photographs.

Hotel room
'Smoke Room' at the Midland Hotel, Bradford, c. late 19th century (NRM / Science & Society)

I recently noticed this photograph on our image database. An unremarkable late Victorian interior, my eye was drawn to a round object on the floor. Zoom into the scene and that dogbowl-like object is revealed to be a metal spittoon.  

Spot the spittoon (NRM / Science & Society)

Such receptacles were once common to many public areas in Britain – although their presence was comparatively low key compared to America. There, with chewing tobacco a popular habit, spitting in public remained more socially acceptable. Photographs from the 19th and early 20th century can reveal spittoons in many US social settings, from the office to the bank , the courtroom to the barbershop

Increasingly regarded as a vulgar practice, spittoons became the only really acceptable outlet for public saliva. They discouraged random spitting and partly contained a major public health hazard – once sputum was linked to the transmission of tuberculosis in the 1880s.  

Ceramic spittoon
Spittoons came in a wide range of designs! (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But the days of these once omnipresent trip hazards were numbered. In many countries, health officials increasingly discouraged or banned their provision, while encouraging the use of personal spittoons. And while they remained more commonplace in US, the 1918 Flu pandemic, the popularity of cigarettes and changing social mores all contributed to the decline there too. 

Enamel sign
Enamel railway sign, c.1920s (NRM/ Science & Society)

Not that this is a total, global vanishing. For example, public spittoons can still be found in China, while in India, the many gutkha chewers use spittoons – albeit most of them improvised. But unless they’re hosting a wine tasting, the days of encountering a spittoon in a grand hotel in Bradford have long gone.