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State Capitol Spittoon

Ornamented bronze cuspidor (spittoon) used in the Wisconsin State Capitol, c. 1915-1955.
(Museum object #1955.3600,A-B)

Today considered an antiquated relic of a bygone era, this bronze cuspidor represents the high level of detail, craftsmanship, and quality that went into the design and construction of the Wisconsin State Capitol. George Post and his firm, George B. Post & Sons, designed the cuspidor as part of his comprehensive vision including not only the structure, but also the furnishings, fixtures, finishes, hardware, and even the receptacles for the by-product of smokeless tobacco. Assemblyman Victor C. Wallin of Grand View, Wisconsin donated this cuspidor to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1955.

Extensive records detailing the design and manufacture of the cuspidors from the State Capitol do not exist. In 1955 the Legislative Reference Library, responding to a research query, wrote, "We recall few cases in which a group of facts have been as elusive as those relating to the spittoons." Some facts pertaining to the origin of the cuspidors, however, are known. In August 1912 the Capitol Commission, which oversaw the Capitol construction (1906-1917), requested bids for cuspidors based on a sample in their possession. In November of that year the Commission awarded the contract to the low bidder, Keifer, Haessler Hardware Co. of Milwaukee, for a cost of $14.40. It is not known how many pieces were included in the original bid.

Kieffer-Haessler, which already had the contract to supply hardware for the entire building, was merely the supplier of the cuspidors. Unfortunately, it is not known which company actually cast them. Whoever the maker, they executed Post's design and made a quality product that was heavy cast with fine detail. This was true of other metal Capitol fixtures such as door hardware, switch plates, and elevator fronts as well.

The cuspidors originally sat in the private offices of constitutional officers and legislators, but their use expanded as more were ordered. Gradually, however, as smokeless tobacco fell out of favor, the cuspidors were "retired" from offices and tucked away in Capitol storerooms. In 1955 the State Bureau of Engineering decided to dispose of the remaining 167 cuspidors in the State's possession. Interestingly, some were still packed in their original crates. The Bureau determined the selling price based on the then current price of scrap brass, 40lbs. = $10 (the cuspidor seen here weighs approximately 39 pounds including its steel liner). Sitting constitutional officers and legislators had the first crack at a very affordable Capitol souvenir.

The State likely did not anticipate the huge demand from Wisconsin citizens who wanted a piece of Wisconsin history. Many requests were denied, but no one tried as hard to obtain a cuspidor as Mrs. Raymond Jaeger of Waterford, Wisconsin. She wrote a lengthy poem to her State Senator, Lynn Stalbaum, in which she requested one. Stalbaum replied in verse stating that he was quite fond of his and could not part with it. Following this, Gov. Walter Kohler penned his own poem to Mrs. Jaeger offering her his very own cuspidor. The subsequent extensive newspaper coverage of the event prompted the Wisconsin Historical Society to collect all of Mrs. Jaeger's correspondence for the Archives as well as an actual cuspidor for the Museum's permanent collection.

Mrs. Jaeger used her cuspidor as a planter in her home's entry hall. Others found new life over the years as lamp bases, doorstops, and mantel pieces. There are still many circulating today, and they sometimes show up in antique stores or online auctions. The cuspidors live on not only as physical mementos of Wisconsin's most treasured building but also as a testament to the quality of the Capitol's construction.

[Sources: Historic Structure Report, Wisconsin State Capitol (State of Wisconsin, Dept. of Administration, Division of Facilities Development, 1995-2004); "A.M. Schmalz is New Owner of Antique Capitol Cuspidor," Kaukauna Times, June 6, 1956; "It's No Ming, But Poet's Fling Brings Cuspidor with True Ring," Wisconsin State Journal, August 25, 1955; "Waterford Woman Gets to Work Polishing Cuspidor From Capitol," Racine Journal-Times, November 9, 1955.]

JEK


Posted on April 26, 2007

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  • Politics & Government
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