Great Expectorations
Silver City was ground zero in the early-1900swar on public spitting

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Three years after lynchings,the Mexican town is quieter but still troubled

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Looking Backward

Great Expectorations

With its sanatoriums, Silver City was ground zero in the early-1900s war on public spitting.

Twana Sparks



On March 21, 1907, a law was enacted in New Mexico territory that forbade public spitting. House Bill 103 stated: 1) it is unlawful for persons to expectorate in specific public places; 2) tuberculous persons must use a covered receptacle; 3) building, tents and rooms used by tuberculars shall be fumigated and disinfected after being vacated, at the expense of the ill person or owner; 4) those violating the above statutes may be fined from $1 to $25 and/or imprisoned for 10 to 50 days.

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The anti-expectoration law survives, listed under "nuisances," right after erecting a slaughterhouse within one mile of the city limits. This statute, number 30-8-12-D, reads: "Conduct offensive to public well-being consists of any person spitting upon or in any public building, store, church, house, school or other building in which persons frequently congregate, or upon or in any public carrier, public sidewalk or roadway." (New Mexico Criminal and Traffic Law Manual, 1995)

Such misbehavior was a petty misdemeanor. The rationale was to prevent the spread of diseases communicated through sputum or saliva. Tuberculosis needs to be aerosolized to infect the lungs. Long skirts of the pioneer women would drag through the excreta of the sidewalks and streets. They would then carry these germs home to their own floors and laundry. The babies were particularly likely to catch TB, since they crawled on the floors.

Richard Meltzer, researcher for the Silver City Museum, says, "Spitting gave ‘lungers' a very bad name although it seemed acceptable for cowboys and others to do so, hence spittoons! By 1901 Albuquerque had laws threatening fines of $5 to $50 ($120 to $1,200 in today's currency) and/or 5-60 days in jail. The laws were seldom enforced, infuriating some, and causing many newspaper editorial rants. Lungers were constantly reminded not to spit well in to the 1930s. They were embarrassed to carry their sputum cups or use them in public, because this labeled one as a lunger (equal to a leper to many folks)."


In sanatoriums, such as those established in Silver City in the early 1900s (Fort Bayard was the US Army's first TB sanitarium), each patient was expected to carry a flask or paraffin-coated spit cup (closable much like Chinese take-out boxes). A disinfectant might also be placed in the bottoms of the containers to kill bacteria as it arrived. They were encouraged to NEVER use a handkerchief or cloth or napkin, which might dry in the air before discarding or laundering, thus allowing possible aerosolization of the dangerous organism.

A blue glass pocket flask developed by Dr. Peter Dettweiler preceded the use of paper sputum cups. He was yet another tuberculosis sufferer. It was an ingenious portable spittoon, and a key element in controlling the tuberculosis pandemic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nicknamed the Blue Henry, it was a work of art, as well, with its brilliant cobalt blue glass and brass sealable cap. Dutch author and glass collector Ivo Haanstra's fascinating book, Blue Henry, goes into great detail about the device, and how it changed the world. The sick and famous are said to have had their Blue Henrys embellished to show their higher status at spas and sanatoriums of Europe.

Waterproof paper cups seem to have been more practical in institutional settings. At the end of the day, each patient's cup could be incinerated, and the burden of tuberculosis germs in the environment decreased.


There are parallels between public spitting and smoking. Both of these "small pleasures" have seen their supposedly harmless status tarnished by epidemiologists. Long before any public health outcry was heard, these two habits had also been battered by etiquette umpires.

In The History of Manners, Norbert Elias records a dozen condemnations of public loogie launching, dating from the middle ages to 1910. Such prohibitions are part of what Elias terms the "civilizing process." In the 14th century, spitting at meals was acceptable, if it was under the table and not across or on it.

Erasmus instructed in 1530 that one should "turn away when spitting," lest one's saliva fall on another person. By the 1600s, Courtin noted that "formerly... it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank, and it was sufficient to put one's foot on the sputum. Today that is an indecency."

Another writer of French origin suggested, "Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to put your foot on it." Writings in the 1700s advised the sputum splatterers, "You should not abstain from spitting, and it is very ill-mannered to swallow what should be spat." The prevailing convention regarding disposal of oral or lung garf, at least among those who read such guides, was to be determined by one's company or location. For example, there was to be no hawking of airway secretions "when you are with well-born people" and certainly "not in places with waxed or parquet floors… in church, houses of the great… in places where cleanliness reigns."


Campaigns against public phlegm flinging apparently started in the 1880s, driven by the risk of TB. The French Hygiene Council gave the first known public orders against saliva salvos. New York followed suit 10 years later.

Nearly all American cities of greater than 25,000 population had ordinances against public expectoration by 1916, according to the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis.

It is doubtful these rules were effective, given the rare enforcement. A review of 74 cities showed only 36 had made any arrests regarding spitting. New York was a center of enthusiasm, arresting 2,513 people on charges of illegal expectoration, representing 73% of the national total.

Magistrates were loathe to punish so slight an offense, particularly in a time when regard for the individual rights was held in high esteem. Eventually, only printed warnings were given.

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Seven hundred Boy Scouts in Cincinnati, with members of the Anti-Tuberculosis League, painted thousands of signs reading "Don't Spit" on sidewalks in a single night.

In places of public gathering, such as barrooms, a variety of encouraging notices appeared: a sarcastic "If you spit on the floor at home, you can do it here," and "Gentlemen will not, others must not spit on the floor," and "MY FRIEND. Let me remind you that spitting on the sidewalks, in the street cars, or in any public place is forbidden by law. It is unsanitary and a menace to the health of others. It spreads TUBERCULOSIS. Every gentleman will obey the law and respect the rights of others."

It is unknown if the legislation of oral excreta ejection suffered any backlash from the public regarding "spitters' rights." Were there acts of civil disobedience by spittle spewers or indignant letters to newspapers from spittoon manufacturers? Was there any complaint that a ban on spitting was the beginning of a slippery slope that would lead to the withdrawal of other beloved pleasures? These questions are currently under a somewhat tongue-in-cheek investigation.



Twana Sparks is a surgeon, humorist and the author of a new book, Ping Pong Balls and Donkey's Milk: The treatment of tuberculosis at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, from which this is excerpted and adapted. The book is available at www.createspace.com/4250883 and at Amazon.com. Sparks will be offering a four-lecture series, "Tuberculosis Treatment at Fort Bayard, 1900-1950" in the spring of 2014 through the Western Institute of Life Long Learning (www.will-learning.com).


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