The Spittoons of the US Senate

April 23, 2024

US Senate class photo

There were once many of these objects dotting the floor in the United States Senate, but now there are just two — two spittoons. They aren’t used anymore, but they once were. Things have changed over the years, and even though the practice of chewing and spitting tobacco isn’t something you’ll see a senator do, there is no rule against it.

The Senate has a history with tobacco. Since the mid-1800s, the Senate had a supply of snuff on hand for any members that wanted to use it. Snuff is the type of tobacco that is inhaled through the nose. Two boxes held a supply of snuff, one on each side of the presiding officer’s desk. One box was for Democrats, and the other was for Republicans.

They had been placed there by then Vice President Millard Fillmore (and later the 13th President of the United States). Fillmore ordered the two boxes to be filled with snuff because he was tired of senators interrupting speeches to get a pinch from the one snuff urn that was there at the time. In addition to the two snuffboxes, there were a half dozen spittoons in the chamber for the senators to spit their tobacco in. The House of Representatives once even had spittoons next to every desk. Today there aren’t any in the House, but there is no rule against chewing tobacco and spitting as long as it doesn’t disturb someone during a speech.

A typical spittoon

Up until 1914, senators could also smoke in the chamber until a rule was passed to ban it for the benefit of an older senator with health problems. Chewing tobacco and snuff were still fair game, however. The last senator to use one of the snuffboxes was Senator Lee Slater Overman, a Democrat from North Carolina in 1931, while the last senator to use one of the spittoons was Herman E. Talmadge, a Democrat from Georgia in 1981.

Even though the snuffboxes and the spittoons hadn’t been used in many years, they stuck around out of tradition. The tobacco from the two snuffboxes was eventually removed for good, and the boxes were covered with protective cases. Most of the spittoons in the Senate were removed except for two that still remain today. There is still no rule against a senator or representative chewing or dipping a wad of tobacco, but interestingly, they are not allowed to use laptops in either chamber. Neither laptops nor tablets are allowed on the floor of the Senate, while the House is a little less strict. They can at least use tablets and mobile phones on the floor. That seems to make sense.

Sources: (1), Roll Call, Spectator, Cambridge Public Library, (2)

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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