A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Case for Cuspidors

Cuspidors have an image problem.

When I was an antiques dealer traveling around the country I was surprised at the large number of majolica collectors who simply wanted nothing to do with cuspidors. Maybe it's the unfortunately vivid alternate name of "spittoon" that puts people off. It certainly can't be the pedigree. Cuspidors were made by virtually every majolica manufacturer from Minton to the tiniest independent pottery. It certainly can't be the design. Cuspidors come in every color and shape imaginable, from the elegant George Jones tortoise to the humble but beautiful Sunflower of Griffen, Smith and Company. No, it simply has to be the original intended usage, as a container for spittle or chewing tobacco. I can think of no other ceramic, save for the chamber pot, that has this problem.

According to Wikipedia, the golden age of cuspidors was from 1840 to 1918 though they've been in use in Asia for centuries. It took the flu epidemic of 1918 to put an end to its use by genteel society. Since this was also roughly the golden age of majolica manufacture it just makes sense that they would have been made in majolica as well as other materials.

While majolica collectors spurn cuspidors, they are adored by decorators. I can't tell you how many decorator rooms I have been through that feature at least one cuspidor as a flower vase. The large, squat shape of these containers are perfect for table centerpieces, allowing for plenty of flowers while not blocking the view of the guests on the opposite side of the table. Indeed, it is a wonderful vessel for this use though I would place a glass liner inside to protect it.

All that being said, there are some wonderful cuspidors  out there.

Etruscan Shell cuspidor

Etruscan lily cuspidor

Etruscan sunflower cuspidor
Etruscan pineapple cuspidor

Lear sunflower cuspidor

Wardle fern and bamboo cuspidor

George Jones tortoise cuspidor. Lift off the shell and the hole for the spittle in underneath.

Wouldn't one of these look great on your dinner table filled with fresh flowers?

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