The Deep, Rich Michigan History Behind the Old Brass Spittoon
You think of Detroit, Michigan as the Motor City not the Spittoon City but long before the Model A was a glimmer in Henry Ford's eye, Detroit manufacturers were turning out cuspidors, or spittoons, the refined reciprocal for those who chew or dip tobacco.
Today spittoons are long out of style. After all, who needs a clunky brass unitasker that would be highly disgusting to clean when there's likely an empty Mountain Dew 20-ounce plastic bottle nearby.
In the late 1800s through the early 1900s Ireland & Matthews Manufacturing Company in Detroit were one of the largest spittoon makers anywhere turning out brass, copper and nickel cuspidors. An ad, like this one shared to the Michigan History Past Present and Future Facebook group from 1890 read
You Touch a Man's Office Pride
The minute you mention BRASS CUSPIDORS, for it's the bright, classy, sanitary conveniences about his office that bespeak character. A good window display will pull buyers. Better still, your city solicitors will find easy sales. Our No. 19 (spittoon) is an honest value, an honest weight, perfectly made. Send for our catalog. 30 styles and sizes.
Catalogs for the company do appear on sites like Ebay showcasing both personal units and large spittoons intended for offices, hotel lobbies and bars.
Interestingly, the company joined the motor trend of other Detroit manufacturers and began turning out bolts and brake drums as well as hubcaps and windshields under the name of I & M Auto Specialities. As late as 1925, however, their Quality brand cuspidors were still on the market.
The spittoons came out of the company's manufacturing plant at 1500 Beard Street in the Springwells neighborhood. Today the footprint of the plant is an open lot in a residential area.
The Old Brass Spittoon
Given the history Detroit has in the manufacture of spittoons, maybe that was the inspiration for the college football trophy that Michigan State and Indiana play for every year called the Old Brass Spittoon.
Wrong. It was a chance purchase at a Lansing antique shop according to RivarlyTrophy.com, which sells replicas of the Old Brass Spittoon.
The Old Brass Spittoon was purchased for $25 in 1950 in hopes of firing up the Spartans prior to their contest with the Hoosiers. Found in a Lansing antique shop by the MSU Junior Class President, it was deemed an appropriate award for the contest. A challenge was issued to and accepted by the Indiana University Student Council in Bloomington, and another great Big Ten tradition was born. The Spittoon is believed to date back to the early 1800’s. So while it’s a relatively new traveling trophy, there aren’t many that have been around for over 2 centuries.
What Are Spittoons Like Today?
While some vintage products are back in vogue, the use of tobacco and snuff is less widespread among the well-heeled and the omnipresence of spittoons may be largely lost to history.
Some artisans, however, do take pride in preserving old spittoons. Check out this polished-up antique.
The closest most people would come to a spittoon today may be a replica at some Old West novelty amusement park or via mid-century cartoons produced before showing tobacco products on children's programming became taboo. You know the sound:
Spittoons, of course, are not the only items to have gone out of style. Check out these relics of the past.
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Gallery Credit: Stacey Marcus