From the earliest days of dining out, eaters have ambled into restaurants with essentially the same set of expectations: They’re looking for a safe, dry place to sit; hot food; cold drink; and elbow room to carve up their meals without jabbing the next guy over.
For the better part of restaurant history, though, they’ve also counted on finding somewhere to spit.
That’s reportedly what Leon Banov, the legendary public health crusader who headed up Charleston’s health department for decades, assumed he’d encounter on an inspection visit to James Tellis’ coffee shop. But Tellis bucked the custom of providing spittoons when he opened Olympia Restaurant at King and Columbus streets in 1922.
“Dr. Banov said, ‘Mr. Jim, where’s your spittoon?’,” Tellis’ daughter Vera recalls. “And my father said, ‘Don’t you see these people eating?’ ”
Tellis, a Greek immigrant who would later operate Uptown Chili and the long-lived Tellis Pharmacy, firmly believed it was a filthy habit to keep a spit receptacle near food.
Yet many contemporary health professionals stood up for spittoons, reasoning it was better to collect patrons’ spit than give them an excuse to expectorate on the floor.
Their evolving stance on the spittoon question helped shape the interior of restaurants, just as public health concerns today subtly determine the design of commercial dining rooms and layout of their menus.
“Modern restaurants are built the way they are to protect consumers from the disasters we’ve seen in the past,” says James Hodge, a College of Charleston alum who now teaches health law and ethics at Arizona State University’s law school, where he serves as associate dean.
Hodge points out that the number and location of exhaust hoods, hand washing sinks, doors, seats and bathrooms were, in most cases, legislated to reduce the risk of deadly fires and food-borne illnesses.
But while fire and salmonella are universally acknowledged as harmful, Hodge allows that at least a few of the ordinances influencing a restaurant’s built environment have a definite moral dimension, such as state laws segregating restaurant bars from areas where minors are permitted.
Although those boundaries simplify liquor law enforcement, they’re at least partly rooted in the theory that “not having kids see adults have alcohol is good,” he says.
Societal values also are likely to decide the fate of electronic cigarettes in restaurants, a topic currently so contentious that a recent CNN blog post defending the practice of e-lighting up during dinner generated nearly 1,000 comments.
The latest round of laws bound to change the look and function of restaurants springs from the point where public health and moral concerns overlap, Hodge says.
In response to the national obesity crisis, state and local governments have begun cracking down on trans fats and ordering restaurants to disclose more nutritional information on their menus, much to the consternation of culinary libertarians who aren’t keen on politicians making dietary choices for them.
“You get to that point where you’re going to have significant public fights,” Hodge says of public health officials’ ongoing efforts to make daily life less hazardous. “We’re probably going to have to go there with the restaurant industry, because, without question, their portions are contributing to the obesity epidemic. You’re going to start seeing real limits on what restaurants can serve.”
Banov took an early interest in restaurant service, devising a sanitation scoring system during World War I that penalized restaurants for faulty refrigeration, inadequate sinks, flies, cockroaches and rats.
What Banov doesn’t mention in his 1970 memoir is whether he marked restaurants down for missing spittoons.
The spittoon story
Tellis maintains her father’s civil disobedience resulted in a municipal ban on restaurant spittoons, but it’s not clear from the historical record whether Charleston ever ruled either way on the issue.
Researchers at the Charleston County Public Library, Addlestone Library and the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control couldn’t find any references to the city requiring or prohibiting restaurant spittoons.
Other than a 1929 code entry pertaining to spittoons in bakery kitchens, the receptacles, also known as cuspidors, are absent from official documents.
But from the mid-19th century until the 1930s, spittoons were found just about everywhere else.
Spittoons, which acquired an air of elegance when chewing tobacco and snuff became fashionable, were so ubiquitous that an African-American newspaper in 1911 joked that the pro-business leader Booker T. Washington would solidify his support by forming a National Negro Spittoon Cleaners’ Association.
Spittoons were fixtures of train cars, courtrooms and saloons; an inordinate number of accounts of 19th-century bar fights end with someone getting rapped on the head with a brass pot.
“I kind of get the feeling spittoons were used more in male-dominated environments,” says North Carolina Historic Sites chief curator Martha Battle Jackson, who recently organized an exhibit of the Duke Homestead’s spittoon collection, believed to be the world’s largest.
The Anti-Tuberculosis League was a particular fan of spittoons, although the medical community slowly started to favor personal versions of the device.
In 1915, Dr. W.A. Evans, professor of hygiene, approvingly quoted from a Kentucky Board of Tuberculosis Commissioners’ manual in a column published by The State: “Never spit on the ground or anywhere else, save in a sputum box or pocket spittoon.”
It’s likely that Banov, whose sister suffered from tuberculosis, believed in the usefulness of spittoons until, like his peers, he didn’t. The 1918 influenza epidemic marked a turning point in spittoon thought, as medical professionals began urging citizens to just stop spitting.
They didn’t need much prodding: With more women entering the public sphere, the behavior came to be seen as unnecessarily coarse. And the wide availability of commercially made cigarettes meant folks no longer needed to chew.
“They went the way of the dinosaur,” says Jackson, who speculates that many surviving spittoons are being used as flower pots.
Yet waging public health battles over what restaurants stock and serve is far from a quaint relic.
“We’re chasing restaurant items that are cumulatively killing people,” Hodge says. “How far we go in regulating that will be the question of the next decade.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
Societal values are likely to decide the fate of electronic cigarettes in restaurants.×
The Charleston Museum has two spittoons (from left) one is an 1880s-era Rockingham American Ware and the other is an 1850s-era Edgefield Pottery.×
This is an 1850s-era Edgefield pottery spittoon from the Charleston Museum.×
Vera Tellis holds a photograph of her father James Tellis who refused in 1922 to provide spittons in the Olympia Restaurant at the corner of King and Columbus Streets. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 10/7/13×
Vera Tellis holds a photograph of her father James Tellis, who refused in 1922 to provide spittoons in the Olympia Restaurant at the corner of King and Columbus Streets.×