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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