“Headquarters of Tobacco-Tinctured Saliva”
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Nothing but the finest for the Victorians. In the 1870s, the Speaker’s offices boasted an elaborate pair of ceramic spittoons on either side of the desk.
For generations, chewing tobacco was immensely popular in the House of Representatives. Members of Congress chewed with gusto, and spat tobacco juice with equal enthusiasm. Receptacles for tobacco spittle-spittoons-were a common sight in the Capitol from at least the 1830s.
Most spittoons in early descriptions were metal, but a ceramic spittoon earned a moment of notoriety in 1858. That February, an argument in the House Chamber between Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina and future Speaker Galusha Grow became a free-for-all, with up to 50 Members of Congress throwing punches. One of them, Grow's fellow Pennsylvanian John Covode, grabbed a heavy stoneware spittoon and threatened to "brain" anyone who crossed him. It is unknown if tobacco juice was sloshing around in his weapon, but the effect was sufficiently unpleasant that when the fracas died down, Covode was asked to take the spittoon back to his desk.
Spittoons presented a danger not only to Members' heads, but also to the building. Accuracy was not prized by expectorating Representatives. One of the earliest references to spittoons in the House Chamber is in Charles Dickens' account of his 1842 trip to Washington, which he dubbed "the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva." He mentioned the "universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honorable member is accommodated," and the resulting effect upon the carpet. The condition of the Capitol's spittoons and the surrounding areas were noted by the House itself in an 1895 report on the "Sanitary Condition of the Capitol":
On either side of the entrance are galvanized iron spittoons filled with saw-dust, which, in the personal knowledge of your committee, were not touched for days, the sawdust being scattered 3 or 4 feet around, and presenting a most disgusting spectacle that would not be tolerated in a barroom of a mining camp.
Sources: Benjamin Perley Poore, Reminisences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis (Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers, 1886); Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842); Report on Sanitary Condition of the Capitol and Administration of the Architect of the Capitol, 53rd Cong., 3rd sess., 2 March 1895, H. Rep. 1980.