Artifact of the Day for June 2nd, 2017 — Spittoon


We had a split group today. Marit and I stayed back in the Archaeology Centre with some of the crew to wash and catalogue artifacts, while the rest of the crew went out on site with James to finish assessment units and continue with drawings and mapping in control points.

While cataloguing, we re-encountered pieces of a kind of ugly [ in my opinion…the decal poppies don’t do anything for me! –Kate ] ceramic vessel that came from the midden area. This thing had been quite puzzling from the moment it was first discovered, because pieces of it had a strange form that wasn’t easily resolved into a piece of tableware.

Now that we finally reached the stage of having the material from that context all washed and spread out, it was easy to locate other pieces that likely came from the same vessel. Jacob became mildly obsessed with the reconstruction.

Jacob after refitting the rim of the vessel.
Jacob after refitting the rim of the vessel.

And then we saw we had a spittoon!

Our spittoon!
Our spittoon!

This artifact is a perfect example of how quickly and comprehensively culture can change. It used to be extremely commonplace in the nineteenth century and earlier for people to spit on floors, streets, and sidewalks, wherever they happened to be. I am sure you can imagine how unpleasant this was, especially as a lot of people at the time primarily consumed tobacco by chewing it, and needed to dispose of large volumes of saliva and bits of tobacco generated through the process.

Spittoons were first seen as an improvement of public hygiene. Instead of spitting on the floor, one would spit into a special receptacle for the purpose. Spittoons were often made of brass, and had a flared rim to catch drips. You would find spittoons in banks, trains, barber shops, saloons, court rooms, and business offices.  You would think nothing of watching people spit into it, and there were people employed in the service of emptying and cleaning spittoons.

Here’s an excerpt about spittoons from a fascinating look at nineteeth-century American culture:

In houses, in clubs, in offices, one cannot help admiring the ingenious forethought, the wonderful care, with which the smallest wants and the slightest commodities of life have been studied: it seems as if there were nothing left to desire.

It is impossible, however, in speaking of American interiors, to pass over in silence a certain eyesore, which meets your sight at every turn.

The most indispensable, most conspicuous, piece of furniture in America is the spittoon. All rooms are provided with this object of prime necessity; you find one beside your seat in the trains, under your table in the restaurants: impossible to escape the sight of the ugly utensil. In the hotel corridors, there is a spittoon standing sentinel outside every door. In public edifices, the floors are dotted with them, and they form the line all up the stairs.

The Americans, used to these targets from the tenderest age, are marvellously adroit at the use of them: they never miss their aim. I saw some really striking feats of marksmanship; but perhaps the best of all at the Capitol, in Washington.

The Supreme Court of Judicature was sitting. As I entered, an advocate was launching thunders of eloquence. All at once he stopped, looked at a spittoon which stood two yards off, aimed at it, and, krrron, craaahk, ptu!—right in the bull’s-eye! Then on he went with his harangue. I looked to see the seven judges and the public applaud and cry “Bravo!” Not a murmur; the incident passed completely unnoticed. Probably there was not a man in the hall who could not say to himself: “There’s nothing in that; I could do as much.”

— excerpt from Jonathan and His Continent: Rambles Through American Society, by Max O’Rell and Jack Allyn, 1889.

Thomas Alva Edison, 1914, with a spittoon by his desk.
Thomas Alva Edison, 1914, with a spittoon by his desk.

The decline of the spittoon can be linked to the great influenza epidemic of 1918, when it became apparent that this practice (although better than spitting on the floor or street) wasn’t very hygienic! Interestingly, around this time is when chewing gum and cigarettes became very popular as well, redirecting people away from chewing tobacco.

Our spittoon is made of refined white earthenware, and has a molded decoration around the rim. The flower design is a decal, which is kind of like a sticker applied on top of the glaze. This gives us a date range of post 1890, and a mean age of around 1910. Decalware was popular into the 1930s and is even still manufactured today, however, we can use the fact about the decline of spittoons to suggest that our piece is probably not younger than the 1930s.

Today, one hundred years later, spitting is considered an unnecessary and repulsive act, as demonstrated by the fact that most places have anti-spitting laws in place!

[June 5th, 2017 update] – During a lab session on June 5th, Jacob and Trevor discovered another bag of ceramics from the same context, and excitingly, there were more pieces from the spittoon, including a mark! The mark indicates the spittoon was made by Unger and Schilde in Roschuetz, Thuringia, Germany.  The company was in business from 1882 to 1953. The particular mark, however, is really interesting. It is specific to items imported into the US and distributed by Jon H. Roth (trademark name Jonroth) of South Bend, Indiana between 1909 and 1916. The German connection continues! How it got to Peterborough county, to then be disposed of in a garbage dump is a mystery!

Three Crown China mark, John H. Roth, importer.
Three Crown China mark, John H. Roth, importer.

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