If you’ve been on a historic building tour at the Museum at Eldridge Street, chances are you’ve seen one of these ceramic bowls. Yup, it’s a spittoon — a designated place for people to spit! During the late-19th and early-20th century, spittoons were on floors everywhere – offices, courthouses, restaurants – even the White House. At Eldridge Street we have a whole collection of them and have learned from our archives that the congregation at our historic home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, ordered new ones each year. But why would a synagogue need an annual supply of spittoons?
Spittoons were particularly important at our historic site, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and they’re connected to another curious historic detail – a snuff box built into the bimah (or reader’s platform) in the downstairs Bes Medrash (a place of everyday study and worship). This singular element gave the synagogue’s congregants the opportunity to indulge their tobacco cravings during the Sabbath, when it was not permitted to light a match to satisfy a cigar or cigarette habit. Snuff is basically tobacco that’s chewed….and then spit out. And that’s where spittoons come in. Since spitting on the floor was not a desirable behavior, receptacles were provided.
Why don’t we have spittoons anymore? We have a pandemic to thank for that. During the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, public officials began to tighten public health policy. Public campaigns waged war on the practice of spitting in general, and on spittoons in particular. It was unsanitary, they argued, and a way to spread disease. Very quickly, the practice began to seem impolite, old fashioned and downright disgusting. The use of spittoons declined sharply after the flu crisis.
Today we are happy to have several of these ceramic relics in our collection of artifacts at the Museum at Eldridge Street. And we’re relieved that its practical usefulness is a thing of the past!
This post was written by Nancy Johnson. Nancy is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s archivist and exhibition curator.