Great Reads, New York City History


A Long Battle Against Public Spitting: New York City’s 1896 Anti-Expectoration Law

August 12, 2020

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Nineteenth-century America had a spitting problem. Public spitting, or “expectorating” as the more genteel would call the habit, was a deeply engrained aspect of male culture. The use of chewing tobacco was nearly universal among the working class, while pipe tobacco and cigars became a status symbol for wealthier Americans. It was also commonly accepted that people suffering from tuberculosis or other respiratory ailments needed to relieve themselves of pulmonary distress by expectorating freely, whenever and wherever possible.

European visitors to the country in the 1800s frequently expressed their shock and disgust at the ubiquitous spitting habit. They wrote that the sidewalks, streets, parks, factory floors, and street cars of American cities were “awash with tobacco tinctured saliva.” One investigation in Baltimore found that a single city block could collect between 2000 and 4000 individual deposits of spit in a single week. Women in particular were affected by this habit, as any trip outside the home meant collecting spit and phlegm along the hems of their floor length dresses.

Public expectoration had long been considered a problem by advocates of the Sanitary Movement. With the 1882 identification of the tuberculosis bacterium and the understanding that the disease was spread through respiratory droplets, medical professionals began to view spitting as a grave threat to public health.

Many doctors across the nation began to argue for a prohibition on spitting in public places. New York City, under the leadership of pioneering health commissioner Herman Biggs, became the first municipal government in the United States to outlaw spitting. The 1896 anti-expectoration ordinance banned spitting in public places and transit systems and made the crime punishable by a $1 to $5 fine and up to a year in jail. By 1910, 2513 spitting related arrests had been made in the city.

Enforcement of the law proved to be a deeply divisive issue. In public forums and letters to newspapers, men accused the law of cruelly targeting a natural impulse, curtailing individual freedoms, and granting the government too much power. Some even questioned the validity of the new medical knowledge of tuberculosis transmission, or argued that the health benefits of spitting outweighed the potential risks. Spitting on or near posters advertising the anti-spitting ordinance became a popular form of protest.  

The backlash against the anti-spitting law led to a retreat from harsher enforcement. Jail sentences were rare and the lowest fines were most commonly enforced. Trying to salvage an ordinance that had done little to curb public spitting, city health officials would turn to women-led advocacy groups to promote public education campaigns. One such group was the Ladies Health Protective Association, an organization formed by a group of middle-class women in 1884 who organized to protest the presence of a large manure dump in their Upper East Side neighborhood. After successfully pressuring the city to remove the offending structure, the group directed their efforts towards other public health and sanitation reforms. Health Commissioner Biggs saw this organization as being uniquely suited to the challenges of promoting the new anti-expectoration laws. Although unable to vote or hold political office, women in the late 19th century were establishing a greater degree of civic influence through public health advocacy. Organizations like the LHPA skillfully manipulated gendered ideals of women as the keepers of respectability and morality in the home to carve out new political identities as “housekeepers of the public sphere.”

The LHPA wrote and distributed literature, created the slogans for the public notices (immediately making the decision to use the word “spit” instead of “expectorate”), and took part in volunteer street-cleaning campaigns. Attitudes changed in the wake of the LHPA’s campaign. Spitting was reframed as unsanitary as well as an insult to civic pride. Men increasingly viewed correcting their own habits and confronting public spitters as their personal responsibilities and a test of manly courage.

Spurred by the growing embrace of the law, city officials also installed spittoons in public areas to accommodate spitting in a safer manner. Medical supply companies even found a profitable market for helping men hold to their new resolve to only spit privately by manufacturing personal sputum flasks. These devices could be concealed in one’s pockets for the purposes of cleanly and discreetly depositing spit. Ranging in quality from single-use paper cups to elegant glass vessels, sputum flasks were designed to appeal to all income levels.

By 1910, 150 city governments had passed anti-spitting laws inspired by New York City’s 1896 ordinance. Bucking this national trend, municipal governments in Florida passed pro-spitting laws, but that’s a blog post for another time! These laws had mixed success in stopping the spread of tuberculosis. The public education campaigns were the most impactful. They successfully translated new medical knowledge of tuberculosis transmission into broadly understandable language and demonstrated how personal behavior could impact society. As we witness similarly divided opinions on how public health and safety measures are enforced in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is useful to remember the power of education to impact individual behavior and fight disease.


Written by Dolan Cochran, Tenement Museum Lead Educator for Specialty Programs 

 

Further Readings:

Abrams, Jeanne E. “”Spitting Is Dangerous, Indecent, and against the Law!” Legislating Health Behavior during the American Tuberculosis Crusade.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 68, no. 3 (2013): 416-50. Pages 426-27. Accessed June 18, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/24672117.

Batlan, Felice, The Ladies’ Health Protective Association: Lay Lawyers and Urban Cause Lawyering (December 1, 2008). pages 706-709 Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1718727 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.171872z7

Machamer, Theresa. When A Women-Led Campaign Made It Illegal to Spit in Public in New York City (February 10 2020) Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/19th-century-public-health-campaign-made-it-illegal-spit-public-new-york-city-180974023/

O’Connor, Patrick J., “”Spitting Positively Forbidden”: The Anti-Spitting Campaign, 1896-1910″ (2015). Page 34. Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 4449. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/4449

 

Images:

Allene Goodenough (right) and Helyn James of the Young Women’s Christian Association mop up a spot on the sidewalk where someone expectorated by an anti-spitting sign during a public health campaign in Syracuse, New York, in 1900. (George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/19th-century-public-health-campaign-made-it-illegal-spit-public-new-york-city-180974023/

Newspaper advert for the 1896 Anti-Expectoration Campaign in NYC, https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5498&context=etd

Advert for Kny-Scheerer Co. Brand Sputum Cups published in Outdoor Life magazine, 1915, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/561579/tuberculosis-anti-spitting-campaigns