Wednesday, July 18, 2012

America before the Word of Wisdom

We have all heard the stories about the incidents that prompted D&C 89.  The school of the prophets would meet and the elders would dirty the floor chewing tobacco that they spit liberally in all directions, and they’d fill the room with smoke from their pipes as they discussed the doctrines of Zion.  Emma Smith had to clean up all that yuck from the floor in the evening and she complained to her husband about it, and then he asked the Lord about it and received the Word of Wisdom.

We might be inclined to think that for some reason the elders of the church were major slobs to spit tobacco all over, but actually their behavior was typical in various American cities at that time.  So typical, in fact, that Charles Dickens commented freely on his observations in his travelogue American Notes.

As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening. In all the public places of America, this filthy custom is recognised. In the courts of law, the judge has his spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the prisoner his; while the jurymen and spectators are provided for, as so many men who in the course of nature must desire to spit incessantly. In the hospitals, the students of medicine are requested, by notices upon the wall, to eject their tobacco juice into the boxes provided for that purpose, and not to discolour the stairs. In public buildings, visitors are implored, through the same agency, to squirt the essence of their quids, or ‘plugs,’ as I have heard them called by gentlemen learned in this kind of sweetmeat, into the national spittoons, and not about the bases of the marble columns. But in some parts, this custom is inseparably mixed up with every meal and morning call, and with all the transactions of social life. The stranger, who follows in the track I took myself, will find it in its full bloom and glory, luxuriant in all its alarming recklessness, at Washington. And let him not persuade himself (as I once did, to my shame) that previous tourists have exaggerated its extent. The thing itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.

On board this steamboat, there were two young gentlemen, with shirt-collars reversed as usual, and armed with very big walking-sticks; who planted two seats in the middle of the deck, at a distance of some four paces apart; took out their tobacco-boxes; and sat down opposite each other, to chew. In less than a quarter of an hour’s time, these hopeful youths had shed about them on the clean boards, a copious shower of yellow rain; clearing, by that means, a kind of magic circle, within whose limits no intruders dared to come, and which they never failed to refresh and re-refresh before a spot was dry. This being before breakfast, rather disposed me, I confess, to nausea; but looking attentively at one of the expectorators, I plainly saw that he was young in chewing, and felt inwardly uneasy, himself. A glow of delight came over me at this discovery; and as I marked his face turn paler and paler, and saw the ball of tobacco in his left cheek, quiver with his suppressed agony, while yet he spat, and chewed, and spat again, in emulation of his older friend, I could have fallen on his neck and implored him to go on for hours….

The Senate is a dignified and decorous body, and its proceedings are conducted with much gravity and order. Both houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described. I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any account.

It is somewhat remarkable too, at first, to say the least, to see so many honourable members with swelled faces; and it is scarcely less remarkable to discover that this appearance is caused by the quantity of tobacco they contrive to stow within the hollow of the cheek. It is strange enough too, to see an honourable gentleman leaning back in his tilted chair with his legs on the desk before him, shaping a convenient ‘plug’ with his penknife, and when it is quite ready for use, shooting the old one from his mouth, as from a pop-gun, and clapping the new one in its place.

I was surprised to observe that even steady old chewers of great experience, are not always good marksmen, which has rather inclined me to doubt that general proficiency with the rifle, of which we have heard so much in England. Several gentlemen called upon me who, in the course of conversation, frequently missed the spittoon at five paces; and one (but he was certainly short-sighted) mistook the closed sash for the open window, at three. On another occasion, when I dined out, and was sitting with two ladies and some gentlemen round a fire before dinner, one of the company fell short of the fireplace, six distinct times. I am disposed to think, however, that this was occasioned by his not aiming at that object; as there was a white marble hearth before the fender, which was more convenient, and may have suited his purpose better. (1)

I remember when I first read this I was simply amazed that such a dirty and disgusting habit could have been so widespread and socially acceptable.  It gave me a deeper sense of what a revolutionary concept it would be for our church members in that time to learn that tobacco was not for the body or the belly.   I had an instant appreciation for the messes that we don’t have to clean up now that this is no longer a common practice in our society.  And too, a look at some pictures of decayed and rotting mouths of teeth caused by frequent tobacco chewing caused me to appreciate the greatly increased health we enjoy now.

As I was working on this post, I started to wonder at what point in our history people decided that spitting tobacco was bad.  Michael Pekker had a bit of insight on his blog about smoking tobacco.

When the germ theory was proven in the late 19th century, public reform efforts began targeting unsanitary practices, such as spitting, which could spread disease.  Public opinion turned against spitting tobacco, and laws were framed that made spitting unlawful in public places.  (2)

Might we have spiritual habits that are just as ugly and unhealthy which we wouldn’t see without an outsider telling us how gross they are?

(1)  (Charles Dickens, American Notes, chapter 8) []
(2)  Michael Pekker, “Chewing Tobacco: History, Specifics, and Health Effects”,


Ramona Gordy said...

My maternal grandfather chewed tobacco, and smoked a pipe. I remember as a little girl being fascinated at his "habit" of chewing tobacco, I thought he was chewing chocolate gum. So I would mimic him by chewing chewy candy and spitting. Well my grandma was totally against my grandfather chewing and spitting, so there was no tolerance for the kids spitting at all. LOL:). Guess who had to empty the spitoons? LOL:)
But in all seriousness, Ioften wondered if this contributed to the rapid decline in my grandfathers health. My paternal grandma "dipped" snuff. I remember going to the store to buy it for her. There seems to be some weird "come back " of these habits and along with it, incidences of tongue and throat cancer. I know from reading the scriptures that the Word of Wisdom is based on ancient dietary practices and I am glad that it has been made available in our day and time.

Becca said...

It's interesting that they didn't discontinue the habit because it was bad for the spitter's health, but rather because spitting spread germs... It wasn't stopped because chewing tobacco isn't good for the body, but because it isn't good for those around the chewer. Interesting...

Michaela Stephens said...

RGG thanks for sharing those experiences with us. Sounds like you were close enough to observe the consequences.

Becca, I noticed that too, that they stopped because of the effect it was having on OTHERS rather than hurt on self.