Pub Culture: The Lost Art of Spitting

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?