Spitting Ordinance Still the Law

By Stephen D. Bowling

In the Spring of 1913, the leaders of the Town of Jackson worked to transition to the City of Jackson. Mayor Lewis Hays, Jr. and the first City Council faced the seemingly insurmountable tasks of financing the city’s operations, codifying its rules and regulations, controlling free-ranging cattle and hogs, and one surprising challenge. The most difficult task the new City Council faced nearly drove them crazy.

Public health banners similar to this broadside were displayed across the city to warn spitters of the danger of their vile habit.

The greatest challenge the Council faced was an effort to stop the men (and women) of Jackson from using the sidewalk and street as their own personal spittoon.

Since 1844, mud, dust, sinkholes, and animal droppings covered the unpaved thoroughfares of the City. Efforts by the town’s leaders stressed the need for macadamized roadways, but the funding was never there to complete that task. In fact, paving work on the street of Jackson did not begin until 1929, when Main and Broadway were covered in asphalt.

People who came to Jackson to shop and trade treated the streets no different than they would their own fields or barn lots. Early visitors would have to “step around or traverse the most slippery expectorations” when crossing the street or walking on the few sections of existing wooden sidewalk. Ladies were required to lift their skirts to avoid dragging the hems of their dresses through the remnants of someone’s “chaw.” The smell was not better.

In 1913, the City Council passed a series of ordinances dealing with a wide range of challenges they faced, including loose hogs, shooting in town, lewd women, gambling, the sale of cigarettes, and regulations for “standing a jack.” One other ordinance passed in its marathon session on April 7, 1913. Section 16 of the new Ordinance Book for the City of Jackson was entitled Spitting Upon and sought to regulate the old, vial habit of spitting.

16th Spitting Upon
That any person who shall spit upon any street or public street-avenue, park, public square or place in the City of Jackson or upon the floor of any hall or office or on any hotel or lodge room, which is used in common by the guests thereof, or upon the floor of any theatre, store, or factory, or upon the floor of any building which is used in public or upon the floor of any street car or other public conveyance used as a common carrier of passengers, or upon the floor of any depot or station or upon the station platform in said City; and any person or corporation having the management or control off any such building, store, factory, street car, or other public conveyance, depot or station or station platform, shall keep permanently posted in each of said places a number of notices forbidding spitting upon the floor and calling attention to this section: and it shall be the duties of the mayor to place or cause to be placed upon said corners of principal streets of the city, signs directing the attention of the public to the ordinance and any person found guilty of spitting upon the sidewalk or any other public place as indicated herein shall be fined in any sum not exceeding five dollars for each offense, and all ordinances and parts of ordnances that conflict herewith are hereby repealed.

Approved by majority April 7, 1913
Lewis Hays, Jr., Mayor

City of Jackson, Ordinance Book 1, page 58-59
The Red Cross and the Easter Seals organization helped promote the education of spitters through the public display of signs.

The ordinance passed unanimously, and the Mayor’s signature gave it the force of law. However, the spitting did not stop. Local officials noted that the only thing that changed with the passage of the new ordinance was the location of the spitting. Officials noticed the post-ordinance spit was concentrated in the alleys, hedges, and behind structures. Leaders and the County Board of Health continued their fight again the habit but chose to use education instead.

Over the next few years, they concentrated on educating children through several programs in area schools. The education effort also extended to their parent. On February 8, 1929, The Jackson Times ran an article by Dr. John Joseph Gaines expounding the dangers in each drop of expectorate.

The Jackson Times printed an “About Your Health” article from Dr. John J. Gaines in the February 8, 1929 edition on page 2.


At best a vulgar habit, which can be done away with if we would devote little time and attention to the task. There is no cuspidor near my desk as I write this. I believe in the practice of what I preach.

Saliva ia a very necessary digestive fluid. It was not provided as a luxury, by as a necessity. To waste it is to disturb the normal balance in our adjustment. The habit of spitting is a symptom indicating disease. We should be more considerate of our fellow men than to willing fully expose them to our throat and nose infections.

Sputum may contain many forms of bacteria; in fact the “spitter” usually has an infected throat, causing increased secretion. To exepectorate on the sidewalk, or on the ground about the home, is to smear the premises with germs which after drying, are ready for voyage into some innocent respiratory tract. This is the way in which the dreaded “T. B.” finds access to many lungs. In the same manner, influenza, diphtheria, pneumonia, scarlet fever, and many other ugly processes are started. To withhold your expectoration, or, if you cannot, then to deposit it on a cloth, piece of paper- something you can burn- is to be a Unitarian on a small but very noble scale.

Local stores such as the Hargis Brothers, H. June Jett, the Crawfords, and the Days carried a series of spittoons for public and home use. Dr. Gaines and the local health official promoted the wonderous works of the pocket cuspidor. The “useful personal” items were advertised in mail-order catalogs, and many were available for purchase in Jackson’s department stores and haberdasheries. These stylish pocket spit flasks could be purchased in various shapes, volumes, and materials, including expensive silver models.

For the considerate man who could not afford those expensive luxuries, a cheaper set of pocket cuspidors made out of paper could be had at less than a fourth of the price of the fancier spit holders. (They did not have Mountain Dew bottles back then.) For the average man, a public spittoon or a cheap sanitary pocket cuspidor proved a better alternative than a spit in the street.

The threat of consumption or tuberculosis and the terrible death that usually accompanied the contraction of the disease forced many to be more conscious of where and when they spit. It would take widespread vaccination efforts to bring the condition under some control in the 20th Century.

As modern medicine reduced the instances of tuberculosis and healthcare became more accessible, the use of pocket cuspidors evaporated. The occasional “spit bottle” (usually a plastic bottle) can be seen in the hands or pockets of local residents.

The concern and scare that accompanied the practice of spitting wained, for the most part, until 2020 and the arrival of the COVID-19 virus. Once again, controlling the vapors and droplets ejected from the mouth, accidentally or intentionally, became a significant concern. Masks and anti-spitting education attempts were once again offered as a solution to prevent the spread of disease. As in 1918, following the Spanish Flu outbreak, local residents soon returned to their spitting ways as soon as our unshielded faces reemerged.

The actions of the Jackson City Council in 1913 and the admonitions from the pages of The Jackson Times had little effect on expectoration. No record of anyone being charged with violating the ordinance has been found among the volumes and volume of city and county courthouse documents. The best effort of the Council

The “vulgar habit” continues today; evidence can be seen across our city. Ultimately, it remains, as always, a personal choice- to spit to not to spit. The next time you are ready to let a mouthful go, remember it is still illegal to “spit upon any street or public street-avenue, park, public square or place in the City of Jackson…”

Remember the words of Jackson’s campaign to stop the practice – “Think Before You Spit.”

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Health, Jackson, Medicine and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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