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.
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]