Throwback Thursday: The Government Cuspidor

One of the most remarkable facts about GSA’s historic buildings is that by and large they still serve the same purpose for which they were originally constructed: as federal courthouses, custom houses, and office buildings. Although they are often being rehabilitated to meet the latest needs for energy savings, security, and information technology, and to adjust to the ever-changing ways in which the government works, GSA takes great care to protect and preserve the parts of historic buildings that tell their history.  Exterior facades, ceremonial courtrooms, and ornate public lobbies throughout GSA’s historic inventory look much the same as when they were originally constructed 50, 100, or 150 years ago.

This is the lobby of the Cleveland Post Office. In the early 20th century, cuspidors were ubiquitous in the lobbies, courtrooms, and offices of public buildings.
This is the lobby of the Cleveland Post Office. In the early 20th century, cuspidors were ubiquitous in the lobbies, courtrooms, and offices of public buildings. (Click on the photo to enlarge. How many cuspidors can you find?)

One item not found in GSA buildings anymore (except in a history exhibit, perhaps) that was once ubiquitous in all government facilities: the cuspidor. Until the late 1950s, the cuspidor, or in less formal circles the spittoon, was everywhere in post office lobbies, courtrooms, and federal offices to accept the expectoration, most often laced with chewing tobacco, of the men (generally) who worked in and visited the buildings. Custodians of the buildings of the first part of the 20th century were constantly ordering and reordering cuspidors and the accompanying cuspidor mats and brushes. As the relatively small Cookeville, Tennessee Post Office and Courthouse was preparing to open in 1916, the Treasury Department ordered 53 brass cuspidors (for the public spaces) and 36 iron cuspidors (for the non-public spaces), and put in an estimate of needing one dozen new cuspidor brushes to clean them.

On November 20, 1930, the custodian at the old Post Office and Courthouse in Detroit, Mich., ordered “two dozen rubber cuspidor mats” and by June 23 of the next year had to order two dozen more to “replace the mats which have become worn out.”  After the opening of the Post Office and Courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., the custodian wrote to Washington stating that the “cuspidors being used in the public lobby are borrowed from other departments” and to please send 25 brass ones.  A 1919 guide to the care of federal buildings devoted an entire page to the daily cleaning and maintenance of the ever-present cuspidor stating (with italics for emphasis), “In no case should uncleaned cuspidors be allowed to remain in a room overnight.”

Thankfully (though perhaps not for the cuspidor manufacturers), because of the shortage of materials and manpower for cleaning during World War II and the gradual popularity of cigarettes over chewing tobacco, and a general understanding of the unsanitary conditions brought about because of them, the cuspidor was slowly removed from the lobbies, courtrooms and offices of public buildings. Officially the reason given was “in the interest of employee welfare and morale, improved working and housekeeping conditions and other attendants benefits.” Some were sold off or given away, while others ended up in store rooms for some time until, according to a 1961 Washington Post article, they gained “decorative status” to “hold growing green things, large floral sprays or umbrellas.”