Exploring the History and Culture of Spittoons in Museums and Collections

The History and Uses of Spittoons All You Need to Know 131665275

Updated On: April 22, 2024 by   Panseih GharibPanseih Gharib

Have you ever been enthralled by a captivating metal or ceramic vessel at an antique market and pondered its past? Rest assured, you are not alone.

In this article, we will explore the rich history and varied purposes of these formerly ubiquitous objects, which were known as spittoons. 

The History of Spittoons

They originated in the United States during the 19th Century and were primarily used as receptacles for spitting and disposing of tobacco chew.

Origin and Use in the United States in the 19th Century

In the late 19th Century, they became common in many parts of the United States. These small pots were used by people who loved chewing or dipping tobacco. They spat into them to get rid of extra saliva.

They could be seen everywhere. You’d find them in public places like train stations and saloons. They were also seen as a big step up for public health and good manners when they first appeared on the scene. However, as awareness of the health risks associated with tobacco use grew, the object fell out of favour and was eventually phased out in the 20th Century.

They are now seen as relics of a bygone era, a reminder of a time when tobacco use was much more widespread and accepted in society. Today, you can often find them in antique shops or museums, serving as a historical artefact rather than a functional item.

Use in Chinese Society

Exploring the History and Culture of Spittoons in Museums and Collections

In Chinese society, spittoons have a long history and are widely used. They were considered an essential public convenience and could be found everywhere. Porcelain items date back to the Tang Dynasty, showing their use since ancient times.

They were considered essential due to the prevalence of tobacco chewing and spitting. People would carry portable ones made of brass or porcelain wherever they went.

They also played an important role in maintaining public hygiene by providing a designated place for spitting, especially in indoor settings like restaurants and tea houses.

Evolution of Spittoon Designs

They have evolved in design over the years. Initially, they were made of brass or porcelain and had a simple shape, resembling a small metal container. However, their designs became more intricate and decorative as time went on.

Some of them had ornate patterns, while others featured elaborate engravings. Additionally, there were portable ones that were convenient for travellers. These evolved designs reflected the practical need for a receptacle and the desire to create aesthetically pleasing objects. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their designs also began incorporating more functional features, such as a hinged lid, to contain odours and prevent spills. Some also had a built-in disposal system to quickly empty and clean them.

As smoking and chewing tobacco became less popular, their use of them declined, and they became more of a decorative item rather than a practical necessity. As a result, modern designs often focus on aesthetic appeal rather than functionality. They come in various shapes, sizes, and materials, ranging from traditional metals like brass to more contemporary materials like glass and ceramic.

Despite their declining use, they continue to have a nostalgic appeal and are often used as decorative pieces in homes and businesses with a vintage or Western theme. Some modern designs even incorporate elements of nostalgia, such as replicas of classic designs or creative reinterpretations that reference their historical significance.

Overall, the evolution of the item’s designs reflects changes in societal attitudes towards tobacco use and the desire to combine functionality with beauty in everyday objects. While they may no longer serve their original purpose, they remain an interesting and unique piece of design history. 

Uncommon Spittoon Designs

The exploration of uncommon designs in rare editions and publications sheds light on these functional objects’ innovative and artistic evolution. From intricately adorned porcelain to the practical elegance of brass designs, the range of uncommon designs reflects the changing tastes and styles across various periods. Studying these rare editions offers a unique perspective on the intersection of art, craftsmanship, and cultural influences within spittoon design.

Usage Throughout History

Exploring the History and Culture of Spittoons in Museums and Collections

They served various purposes throughout history, from their initial use as receptacles for tobacco chewing and spitting to their modern role as collector’s items and decorative pieces.

1. Tobacco use: they were initially used as receptacles for individuals who chewed tobacco and needed a place to spit out the excess saliva and tobacco juice.

2. Public health: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were common in public spaces, such as saloons, train stations, and offices, to prevent the spreading of infection with diseases like tuberculosis and the flu.

3. Decorative purposes: Antique and vintage ones are often collected for their historical significance and decorative appeal, especially for those interested in Western or cowboy-themed decor.

4. Historical artefacts: they are often considered historical artefacts and are displayed in museums and historical sites as reminders of past societal norms and habits.

5. Collectables: Some individuals collect them as part of their broader interest in historical and antique items, and they may seek out rare or unique designs for display in their homes or collections.

6. Movie props are sometimes used as props in Western-themed movies and stage productions, adding an element of authenticity to the setting.

7. Symbols of the past: they are sometimes used to illustrate and symbolise the habits and customs of the past, especially in educational settings or historical reenactments.

Overall, their use has evolved from their practical role in tobacco consumption to their current place as historical artefacts and decorative items. 

The Role of Spittoons in Public Health

They have played a significant role in public health throughout history, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These containers were used to collect spit, providing a sanitary method for individuals to dispose of saliva, tobacco juice, and other bodily fluids. Providing a designated place for spitting helped reduce the spread of infectious diseases. In addition, they were commonly used in public spaces such as train stations, office buildings, and saloons, where tobacco chewing and spit expulsion were prevalent. A cleaner and healthier environment for the public was maintained by containing and isolating potentially infectious bodily fluids.

However, despite their beneficial role in public health, they eventually fell out of favour as societal attitudes towards spitting and tobacco use shifted. In modern times, their use has largely been replaced by more discreet methods of disposing of bodily fluids, such as tissue or handkerchiefs.

While their use has declined, their historical significance in controlling the spread of disease and promoting public health should be noticed. In some cultures and regions, they are still used in specific settings, highlighting their continued relevance in maintaining cleanliness and preventing the transmission of infectious diseases. 

Spittoons in Museum Collections

Exploring the History and Culture of Spittoons in Museums and Collections

Preserving and maintaining these items in museum collections requires careful attention to their materials and historical significance. Given the diverse range of materials used to create them, such as porcelain, brass, and clay, it’s essential to employ specialised preservation techniques to prevent deterioration and ensure longevity. Regular assessments, proper storage conditions, and periodic conservation treatments are integral to maintaining the integrity of these artefacts for future generations.

Displaying in Museums

When exhibiting spittoons in museums, curators aim to contextualise their historical, cultural, and practical aspects. By providing detailed information about the provenance, manufacturing techniques, and sociocultural significance, museum displays offer visitors a comprehensive understanding of these objects. Creating engaging narratives around their use in different settings, from saloons to offices, enriches the visitor experience and fosters appreciation for their evolving role throughout history.

Archive of Spittoon Memorabilia

The archive of spittoon memorabilia provides a comprehensive record of historical artefacts, advertisements, and literary-related references. This collection is a valuable resource for researchers, historians, and enthusiasts, offering a deeper understanding of their multifaceted roles in societal norms, public health initiatives, and popular culture. By delving into this archive, one can trace the evolution of the objects and gain insights into their cultural significance and the enduring impact they have had on various aspects of society.

In conclusion, spittoons have a fascinating history and serve multiple purposes. They originated in the United States and were widely used in Chinese society. Their designs evolved from simple brass or porcelain receptacles to more decorative options.

While the object’s original purpose was for tobacco chewers to spit, it now serves as a collector’s item and is appreciated for its historical significance. Whether you’re interested in the history of public hygiene or enjoy antique artefacts, it is intriguing and worth exploring.


What is the history of spittoons?

They are also known as spitting sinks or cuspidors. Their rich history dates back to the Victorian era when tobacco use was common.

Why did people use them in the past?

Tobacco lovers use them during indoor smoking sessions because smokeless tobacco causes excessive salivation, leading to lots of spitting.

Are there other uses for spittoons apart from catching saliva and tobacco stains?

Yes! In addition to catching saliva and tobacco stains, some people used them as spit cups in dental offices and even for wine-tasting events.

When did public spitting become less common?

When health concerns over public spitting arose due to germs in the late Victorian era, it became less popular, contributing to decreased use of spittoons.

Do we still have any uses for them today?

While uncommon today, they might remain where old customs are kept alive, like smokeless tobacco industry conventions or historic reenactments.

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