New York City’s novel anti-spitting law of 1896

The nasty habit was commonly done on sidewalks and in streetcars. But health officials knew that spitting spread lethal diseases, especially tuberculosis, a leading cause of death in crowded, dank neighborhoods.

So in 1896, forward-thinking New York became the first city to outlaw “expectorating,” as the practice was delicately called in the gay nineties.

Signs went up on public transportation and other spitting hot spots, warning of arrest and a $500 fine. But the new ordinance generated controversy and wasn’t always taken seriously.

“In New York, of the 2,513 arrested, there were 2,099 convicted, one of every seven escaping,” writes a 1910 New York Times article.

“The total fines were $1,936.80, an average of less than $1.”

Even citizens vehemently against the habit railed that the ban was understandable, but unenforceable.

Not allowing people to spit might even be dangerous, according to one letter writer to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in February 1896, before New York adopted its law:

“No law can be made strong enough to prohibit public expectoration. The health of the individual might often suffer from such a restraint. But it is easy for the many who must spit to do so in the street instead of on the sidewalk.”

[Brooklyn Tuberculosis Committee clipping courtesy of J. Warren]

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13 Responses to “New York City’s novel anti-spitting law of 1896”

  1. Josie Says:

    One of my earliest memories of life in NYC as a child is that of sounding out the word “expectorating” on a sign that said No Expectorating, and my mother providing the definition. In the 1940s and 1950s, people were *not* spitting all over the place. It’s SUCH a filthy, savage, disgusting habit, in my opinion, and can certainly be enforced. What’s missing is the conviction that it should be prohibited and the will to enforce laws against antisocial behavior in general. In recent years the behavior has become commonplace in the small southeastern city where I now live now. Even police officers in uniform, on duty, attending to a law enforcement situation, stand around spitting constantly all over the sidewalk in every direction. Ugh.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Why the laws are not enforced, I have no idea. The other one that appears to be on the upswing is public urination. I often see perfectly normal looking guys ducking between parked cars or beside buildings at night with no shame. Isn’t that what bar bathrooms are for?

      Why doesn’t Bloomberg and his quality of life crew crack down on this kind of stuff, rather than smoking in Central Park?

      • petey Says:

        “I often see perfectly normal looking guys ducking between parked cars or beside buildings at night with no shame.”

        yes, and i’ve seen perfectly normal looking gals doing similar, these last years.

      • JPW Says:

        I saw two Santas drunk and urinating side by side last winter.

  2. Civilian Courts Quite Effective in Terror Trials - Says:

    […] look back at the anti-spitting law of 1896, which intended to prevent the spreading of disease in New York and carried a $500 fine for […]

  3. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    If anyone was civilized they would have ‘pissoirs’ “a public urinal located on the street in some European countries.” But in American cities we look down of trying to eliminate our waste as filthy, gross and horrible.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    I guess the equivalent here are those public pay toilets they’ve tried placing in parks. I think one was (or is?) in Madison Square Park. I don’t think those worked out so well.

    • mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

      Built as a novelty, no one took them seriously. We used to have public toilets in the parks, I recall Bryant Park near 5th Avenue, Madison Square Park near 23rd St and Madison Ave and the Union Square Park on 16th-17th St where the small park building is. Done away with I suppose from fear of AIDS and other noxious diseases. I recall dropping into them in the 60s all over the city. You take a whiz and go on your merry way. But now, forget it!

      • mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

        I stand corrected: it wasn’t the fear of AIDS that closed off the park restrooms but more and more the appearance on homelessness that drove, mostly men, to seek shelter in park bathrooms. Many times I’d go in and try to do my business only to be chased out by some scrounging bum after some coins or maybe even trying to get more. Homelessness had something to do with it.

  5. Lisa Says:

    Spitting has always struck me as an especially pointless exercise. Unless someone’s chewin’ on tobaccy, what physical compulsion prompts one to spit?

    I say spitting is just a macho pose– the spitters must think it makes them look cool, or virile… like actors in Westerns.

    Another pointless “macho” habit (inspired by old movies too, I bet) is the compulsion for smokers (inevitably male smokers) to slap slap slap a fresh pack of cigarettes against their palm before opening. Serves zero purpose, I think they’re mimicking men in 1940’s era movies, when it was habitually done because cigarettes were unfiltered (presumably done to “pack” any loose tobacco so less of it would likely adhere to the smokers lips– thereby avoiding the necessity to spit!).

    Whenever I stop by a newsstand, inevitably there’ll be some young lunkhead posing before the counter, slap slap slapping a fresh pack with the utmost concentration. Hilarious.

  6. WHAMMO! Says:

    Obviously Lisa has never smoked or gotten a chest cold.

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    […] city, it’s been illegal to spit on sidewalks and the floors of public places and vehicles since 1896. The law was passed to curb the spread of tuberculosis, pneumonia and other respiratory […]

  8. A Brooklyn anti-spitting ad to bring back today | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] ad was part of a 2011 Ephemeral New York post on the anti-spitting law passed in New York in 1896, which called for a $500 fine for anyone caught […]

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