The Alamo, the Cubs and the Cuspidor
By now, those people who have suffered through one of my talks must realize that I am a big fan of historical trivia, especially stories which demonstrate unusual or unexpected connections (not just with Kevin Bacon). For example, in this blog space a few weeks past, we made a connection between a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Outlaw Josey Wales (see our post for June 6th). But an exercise in connectivity does not necessarily just involve historic characters; it can also use artifacts of the most mundane nature to weave and wind a trail through time.
One good example is the spittoon, also known as the cuspidor (from the Portuguese “cuspir,” meaning to spit). We have several of them in our collection. The one shown in the photo is from the old Tutwiler Hotel in downtown Birmingham (the Tutwiler met the wrecking ball, or should I say dynamite, in 1974). Spittoons have been around for a long time. They became especially popular in the United States and Australia in the 19th century in saloons, hotels, railway cars and other places that men gathered to use chewing and dipping tobacco. Signs in these places often read “If you expect to rate as a gentleman, then do not expectorate on the floor.” Spittoons were usually made of brass, but fine porcelain and even glass spittoons can be found in collections today. The largest collection of spittoons (according to their website) can be found at the Duke Homestead Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina. Where else could it be but in North Carolina?
The demise of the spittoon in public places can be traced directly to the year 1918. At least 50 million people were killed by the Spanish flu, a potent influenza pandemic which affected another 550 million around the world. Of course, the flu is spread when the little drops that spray out of an infected person’s mouth and nose when he or she sneezes, coughs, laughs, or . . . spits, makes contact with another person. Spittoons are a perfect breeding ground for this virus. People realized this and soon spittoons were sent to attics and closets, only to reappear as novelties in historic homes and museums later in the 20th century.
However, there is a second, more subtle reason for the decline in spittoon use connected directly to a famous engagement during the War for Texas Independence in 1836 – the Battle of the Alamo. On March 6th of that year, 182 Texicans died defending that small mission in San Antonio, including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. The villain in the story was Mexican President, General Antonio López de Santa Anna. Made infamous by this event, Santa Anna also fought against the United States in the Mexican War of 1846-1848 which resulted in Mexico losing a great deal of territory, including much of what is now the southwestern part of our country. A pariah in his own country, Santa Anna was exiled, spending several years in Central and South America. Eventually, and ironically, in 1869 he settled on Staten Island in the State of New York.
To raise funds in his old age, Santa Anna hoped to publish and sell his autobiography. Not finding a publisher, he decided to publish it himself. To raise money for this venture, he took a supply of sap from a tree native to Mexico to a scientist, expecting that this product could be vulcanized into some type of rubber. After months of experimenting with Chicory tree sap, the scientist was unable to do anything with it. However, he did discover that the sap, combined with sugar was pleasant to chew. The chewing gum industry was born.
Twenty years later, in 1891, a young entrepreneur was struggling to sell his brand of baking soda in the Chicago area. As a promotion, William Wrigley began packaging chewing gum with each can of baking soda sold. Soon, the chewing gum became more popular than the baking soda. The rest is history. Wrigley made so much money that he was able to buy his own professional baseball team – the Chicago Cubs, even changing the name of the ballpark to Wrigley Field.
Now ballplayers are famous for being expert spitters. You can’t watch a game on television without seeing at least 10 or 20 spits. Pitchers, at one time, even used a pitch called the “spitter,” which is now illegal. But there is no need to spit when you are chewing gum. There is therefore no need to use a spittoon when you are chewing gum. We can thank Santa Anna for that.