Pub Culture: The Lost Art of Spitting

Detail from the cover of "Industrial Town".

One of the weirdest, grimmest things about our recent Big Project has been the amount of time we’ve spent reading about spitting.

We knew it used to be common in pubs from the detailed coverage in Mass Observation’s The Pub and the People but that’s nothing compared to what we found in Industrial Town: self-portrait of St Helens in the 1920s by Charles Forman, published in 1978. The bulk of a small section on pubs is given over to a woman in her sixties recalling life as the teenage daughter of a publican. Here’s what she had to say about spitting (look away now if you’re squeamish):

My sister and I used to do all the cleaning when we left school, polishing the floors… There were spittoons, because they used to smoke a lot of pipes then, and they have had worse chests than we do now. They smoked long clay pipes and dipped the ends into the beer to keep them cool. The spittoons were iron, and terrible to clean out — you used to have to put sawdust in. Imagine cleaning what someone had been spitting out! When the floors were carpeted, they daren’t spit on them and went outside to do it. They used to spit on the fire; you used to have to clean off what stuck on the grate after bad aiming. They always spat on the fire at home.

It seems weird to think this was ever acceptable, doesn’t it? We wonder (nervous to mention it because people do get narky on this subject) if this is how people will think about smoking in pubs in a few years time. Or maybe this is another thing (tuberculosis risks aside) that ought to make a comeback, with a little symbol in the Good Beer Guide?

10 thoughts on “Pub Culture: The Lost Art of Spitting”

  1. The Phoenix Ale House in Inverness is one of the few pubs in Britain to still have its spittoon running around the bar, though obviously not in use any more.

      1. I can remember spitting. It was also useful for those needing to throw up which I also remember. There was indeed a lot more spitting during my youth. I presume it was due to the high tar cigarettes and general air pollution.

    1. I guess if everyone was breathing smoke from open fires, working in fume- and dust-filled industrial environments, and possibly dealing with lung damage from chemical weapons, it might have seemed odd not to spit.

      1. I’m not sure you are right about this, Bailey. As a young child, I can remember going out for walks with my grandfather, whom I adored. He would sometimes stop, clear his chest and then spit into the gutter, a disgusting looking greenish phlegm.

        I know he couldn’t help this as he suffered from chronic emphysema, and I don’t think he even made it to 60 years of age, but the affect on an impressionable young boy was one I still cringe at today.

        Spitting is a revolting habit but, as your researches have uncovered, was once widespread. I am old enough to remember the défense de cracher (no spitting) signs on the Paris Metro system, which proves that in some countries it only died out relatively recently.

        1. My point is, what’s disgusting is relative to time and place. Eating Stilton crawling with maggots sounds pretty nasty to me but was quite the done thing a couple of hundred years ago.

  2. I remember asking my Grandad what he thought of his new gas fire, installed after he became too frail to carry the coal buckets in. He paused, looked into the thin flames for a moment and stared at the tab ends littering the artificial coals, before sadly announcing, ‘It’s Alreight lad, but tha can’t spit on it.’ He later passed away after a long battle with lung disease.

  3. Once again we see Britannia assuming the role of the nation’s governess and gainsaying the simple pleasures of the English yeoman. This so-called “spitting ban” will give rise to a host of taverns and alehouses closing their doors forever, mark my words.

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