Monday, January 9, 2012

Chew, Chew...Spit

QUESTION: I found what looks like a small, shallow, porcelain vase at a fleamarket near my home. It’s almost too short to hold anything but flowers with very short stems and has a delicate floral design on the outside. Do you have any idea what this might be?

ANSWER: What you have is a ladies spit cup or spittoon. Chewing is one of the oldest ways of consuming tobacco. Native Americans chewed its leaves, often mixing it with lime. It became a popular pastime in the last decade of the 18th century and continued to be so until 1920. Today, the most visible evidence of tobacco chewing appears in baseball, but even that’s dying out as users succumb to throat cancer.

Though mostly men indulged in the habit of chewing tobacco, women, especially those in Victorian times, used it as well. In 1865, a traveler down South noted that seven-tenths of all people, both male and female,  over the age of 12 used tobacco in some form. Even children of 8 or 9 smoked. The habit increased in popularity after the Civil War as soldiers, who chewed tobacco to ease frazzled nerves on the battlefield, continued to do so after they came home.

Victorian women could chew and spit as well as men. These ladies usually abused tobacco and alcohol behind closed doors. And while they snuck outside and drank and smoked in the outhouse to avoid being caught by their husbands, they often chewed tobacco quietly around the house while doing their chores and needed something in which to deposit their spit.

After the Civil War, spittoons became a fixture in many places, including hotels, saloons, stores, and any other place where men chewing tobacco might congregate. These were large vessels made of brass or pottery with a broad rim into which the chewer tried to aim his spit, often with little success.

Woman, on the other hand, used a dainty spit cup—also called a lady’s cuspidor, toilette cup, or boudoir dish—to gracefully discard their sputum. Some looked like regular coffee or tea cups while others had fanciful shapes with fluted rims. Since ladies didn’t need to spit across the room, these cups often had decorative gold rims and base, and delicate, lady-like designs. Some came in the shape of little baskets or drawstring purses. English and French manufacturers, especially Limoges, made these lovely spit receptacles out of fine porcelain, and for plainer, everyday use, ironstone with flowered transferware patterns on both the inside and outside.

As chewing tobacco's popularity declined throughout the years, the spittoon became a relic. However, women found other uses for these cups. Pregnant women, who tended to salivate more, especially when they had nausea or heartburn, also used these cups. Even today, it’s common for Haitian women to carry around a spit cup while pregnant.

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