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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Great Expectorations

Nearly a century ago, librarian and museum director John Cotton Dana belittled "marble palaces filled with those so-called emblems of culture, rare and costly and wonder-working objects... which kings, princes, and other masters of people and wealth had constructed." He argued that museums should collect, preserve, and share the objects of everyday community life. He would presumably have enjoyed the humble brass spittoon in the Museum's collections, salvaged from the State Capitol 50 years ago.

People have suggested for decades that politicians produce an unusual quantity of hot air. On April Fool's Day 1933, the Madison press even claimed that it caused the Capitol dome to collapse. But lawmakers apparently also produced a great deal of other detritus, a fact confirmed by the large number of ornate brass cuspidors supplied to the "new" Capitol. In 1912, a contract was awarded to furnish these to the private offices of constitutional officers and legislators, and their number and use seems to have expanded as the size of government grew during the first third of the 20th century.

But by 1955, the majority of legislators were smoking their tobacco instead of chewing it. To crew-cut lawmakers in white shirts and ties, the spittoons were merely obsolete relics of horse-and-buggy days. With 167 of them still on hand and very few real live spitters in Capitol offices, state officials sold them as scrap metal. The spittoons reportedly still turn up occasionally in Wisconsin antique shops, transformed into lamp bases and planters.

And for a strange story about horses that chewed tobacco, see the memoirs of logger John E Nelligan in our online Wisconsin Magazine of History. After noting the fondness of lumberjacks for their daily chaw, Nelligan wrote that "Chewing tobacco reminds me of Ed Erickson. Ed was one of the best woods and river foremen we ever had, and he was a gentleman to boot. He started his career as a teamster and he was as good a man at handling horses as he later became at handling men.

"Like most Scandinavian woodsmen, especially teamsters, Ed loved his chewing tobacco. Whenever he pulled his plug of tobacco out of his pocket, the horses would turn their heads expectantly towards him, and he always had to give each of them a chew before putting the plug back. They loved the stuff, and Ed being a gentleman, always treated them. But it ran his tobacco bill pretty high."

Whether the horses used a cuspidor is not recorded.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 25, 2007

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