The American Habit of Spitting Tobacco Juice

Punishment for spitting on the deck: carrying a spittoon for the crew. Drawing from the first half of the 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

Punishment for spitting on the deck: carrying a spittoon for the crew. Drawing from the first half of the 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

When Emily Hopkinson complains to Napoleon Bonaparte about the habits of young American men in Napoleon in America, she says, “If a young lady should happen to accost one of those elegant figures, it is a considerable time ere she can be answered, as the gentleman must first dispose of the mouthful of delicious juice he has been extracting from a deposit secreted in one of his cheeks.” (1) The “deposit” to which Emily refers is chewing tobacco. Disposal of the juice involves spitting – a practice early 19th-century Americans lustily engaged in, often without benefit of a spittoon. British visitors to the United States were appalled.

Some practices…among the Americans are to Englishmen excessively disgusting, and some of their usages shocking to our delicacy. The custom of hawking and spitting, and squirting tobacco-juice on the carpets and walls of their drawing-rooms, is of this number. (2)

The most offensive peculiarity

English merchant Adam Hodgson, who visited America in 1819, observed:

The next American habit on which I will remark, which always offended me extremely, is the almost universal one of spitting, without regard to time, place or circumstances. You must excuse my alluding to such a topic; but I could not in candour omit it, since it is the most offensive peculiarity in American manners. Many, who are really gentlemen in other respects, offend in this; and I regretted to observe the practice even in the diplomatic parties at Washington. Indeed, in the capitol itself, the dignity of the Senate is let down by this annoying habit. I was there the first session after it was rebuilt, and as the magnificent and beautiful halls had been provided with splendid carpets, some of the senators appeared at first a little daunted; but after looking about in distress, and disposing of their diluted tobacco at first with timidity, and by stealth, they gathered by degrees the courage common to corporate bodies; and before I left Washington had relieved themselves pretty well from the dazzling brightness of the brilliant colours under their feet! It was mortifying to me, to observe all this in an assembly, whose proceedings are conducted with so much order and propriety, and in chambers so truly beautiful as the Senate and House of Representatives – the latter the most beautiful hall I ever saw. (3)

Frances Trollope, who spent 1827-1830 in the United States, wrote caustically of “that plague-spot of spitting which rendered male colloquy so difficult to endure.”

I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans.

Observing from the visitors’ gallery of the House of Representatives, Mrs. Trollope, like Hodgson, found it

really mortifying to see this splendid hall, fitted up in so stately and sumptuous a manner, filled with men sitting in the most unseemly attitudes, a large majority with their hats on, and nearly all spitting to an excess that decency forbids me to describe. (4)

Even at the White House, “[c]onversation, tea, ice, music, chewing tobacco, and excessive spitting afford[ed] employment for the evening,” according to Henry Bradshaw Fearon, who toured America in 1817-1818. To Fearon’s regret, the practice was not confined to the nation’s capital.

I disapprove most decidedly of the obsequious servility of many London shopkeepers, but I am not prepared to go the length of those in New York, who stand with their hats on, or sit or lie along their counters, smoking segars [cigars], and spitting in every direction, to a degree offensive to any man of decent feelings.

Fearon also complained about the taverns in Louisville, Kentucky, where “there is not a man who appears to have a single earthly object in view, except spitting and smoking segars.” (5) British farmer William Faux was equally “well pleased” to turn his back “on all the spitting, gouging, dirking, duelling, swearing, and staring of old Kentucky.” (6)

In Philadelphia, Scottish politician James Stuart lodged in a very good hotel, to which he would have returned, “but for the smoking and chewing of tobacco, which never ceased in the reading-rooms. The chewing and spitting were carried to such a height, that it was difficult to escape from their effects.” (7)

Well-bred men in well-dressed rooms

An advertisement for chewing tobacco, circa 1870-1900. Source: Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth

An advertisement for chewing tobacco, circa 1870-1900. Source: Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth

As indicated by Emily Hopkinson’s remark, there were Americans who disapproved of the custom. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, co-founder of Harvard Medical School and saviour of John Quincy Adams’ portrait, took the view that a well-bred man “refrained from spitting in company, and in well-dressed rooms.” Dr. Waterhouse warned of the health consequences of spitting.

The first effect of tobacco on those who have…already commenced the offensive custom of chewing or smoking, is either a waste or vitiation of the saliva.

The saliva or spittle is secreted by a complex glandular apparatus from the most refined arterial blood, and constantly distils into the mouth in health; and from the mouth into the stomach at the rate of twelve ounces a day. It very much resembles the gastric juice in the stomach; and its importance in digestion may be imagined after listening to the words of the great Boerhaave. ‘Whenever the saliva is lavishly spit away, we remove one of the strongest causes of hunger and digestion. The chyle prepared without this fluid is depraved, and the blood is vitiated for want of it. I once tried,’ says this great philosopher and consummate physician, ‘an experiment on myself, by spitting out all my saliva; the consequence was that I lost my appetite.’ Hence we see the pernicious effects of chewing and smoking tobacco. (8)

Mason Locke Weems, in his biography of Benjamin Franklin, said bluntly:

O you time-wasting, brain-starving young men, who can never be at ease unless you have a cigar or a plug of tobacco in your mouths, go on with your puffing and champing – go on with your filthy smoking, and your still more filthy spitting, keeping the cleanly house-wives in constant terror for their nicely waxed floors, and their shining carpets – go on, I say; but remember it was not in this way that our little Ben became the great Dr. Franklin. (9)

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  1. This bit of dialogue, which appears on p. 76 in the novel, is taken directly from a humorous letter Emily Hopkinson wrote for The Port Folio, Vol. II (Philadelphia, April 3, 1802), p. 98, under the pseudonym of “Beatrice.”
  2. The Monthly Review, or Literary Journal, Vol. 105, 1824, p. 250.
  3. Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, Vol. I (London, 1824), pp. 35-36.
  4. Frances Milton Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London, 1832), pp. 108, 34, 183.
  5. Henry Bradshaw Fearon, Sketches of America (London, 1819), pp. 291, 12, 249.
  6. William Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States (London, 1823), p. 203.
  7. James Stuart, Three Years in North America, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1833), p. 398.
  8. Benjamin Waterhouse, Cautions to Young Persons Concerning Health (Cambridge, 1822), pp. vii, 33-34.
  9. Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1835), p. 23.

6 commments on “The American Habit of Spitting Tobacco Juice”

  • Louise says:

    I was brought up in a (then) rural area in south of Montreal, Quebec in the ’70s.
    My family home was next to an old couple’s home whose garden was adjacent to our yard. The old man was growing tobacco plants and would dry the leaves in a small cabin in the back corner of his garden. Once dried, he would cut then chomp and spit. oh la la. We could follow his whereabouts everywhere around the area with telltale gobs of saliva.
    Another of his occupations would be to sit rocking chair next to his chicken coup and his wife with a makeshift spittoon between them.
    I wanted to see what this activity was about so one day I took a handful of rolling tobacco and put it in my mouth and tried to chew….hahahahahahah
    Needless to say, NOT the same thing! And I never did find out what the joys of chewing tobacco were but did learn in later years that it was a source of mouth and throat cancer.
    No joy in that, right?

  • terry towels says:

    When I was young, many older men still used spittoons. Of course, the cleaning of said items was left to the young girls of the house. I remember helping a friend clean her family’s spittoons. I gagged and vomited through the whole process. Nasty, nasty habit, which would end immediately if men had to clean up after themselves.

  • Leroy L. Denson says:

    Hello Shannon. I came here from a google search, looking for when this disgusting habit ended in the 19th century? I am over half way through Charles Dickens American Sketches, and was repulsed by tobacco chewing and spitting EVERYWHERE, regardless of spitoons. Any ideas? Thanks

  • Shannon Selin says:

    The habit continued until at least the end of the 19th century, Leroy. In 1897, the Indianapolis city council approved an ordinance making it “unlawful for any person to spit tobacco juice upon the floor of any theater or place of amusement, or upon the floor of any streetcar,” with a maximum $10 fine for violations. This may have been indicative of a turn in opinion against the practice, although my great-grandfather (born in Iowa in 1882) continued to chew and spit tobacco into the 1970s!

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I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans.

Frances Trollope