porchThe men chewed, the finicky and toothless slicing the quid from the plug with a pocket knife – no male was complete without his knife – the rest biting or gnawing it off with such teeth as they had.  Of the biters there were two kinds: the clean, whose teeth went through the plug with the click of a precision instrument and left a pattern of perfect occlusion, and the ragged, whose eroded plugs were stringly evidence of missing teeth.  While the chewer was talking, his quid, now a spongy and swollen wad, rested between upper jaw and cheek, making a bulge like a small boy’s aching tooth and slightly impeding speech.  Some smoked pipes, they shredded the tobacco from the plugs with their knives, for prepared pipe tobacco was unknown.  Cigars were smoked mostly for convenience, when spitting must be restrained.

The woman dipped.  Snuff box and dipping stick were that day’s equivalent of a cigarette case and lighter.  The snuff stick was a peeled twig, preferably from the sweet gum tree, shredded at one end to make a brush the method of use was to wet the stick with spit, dip it into the box, and rub well the gums.  One good dip made the dipper’s spit reddish brown for hours afterwards.

Boys learned to chew at an early age, but long before chewing time they began to collect tobacco tags, tokens of plain or colored tin stuck on the plugs.  While in other parts of this country boys of the same age were learning geography through collecting postage stamps, local boys were learning and debating the virtues of the various brands of chewing tobacco.  Every boy knew which one he would someday chew, his choice being determined, as was fitting, largely by tradition.  Favorite brands includes names like “Brown Mule,” “Jay Bird,” or “Snaps.”  Meanwhile the boys practiced spitting, sometimes chewing coffee grounds in the cause of realism.

This was a spitting world.  Everybody, except ladies and aspirants to that title, spat.  No public place was without its receptable.  In hotels and local trains there sat the tall and shining brass spittoons.  Most homes had them also – “bring Paw his spittoon” was a familiar command – and in any case it was a wise precaution to have one handy, for the use of a spitting guest.  Out of doors there was greater freedom for the sport and it was here that spitters like to prove themselves expert in placing shots, and the traditional target was knothole in a fence.  To recall the distance and accuracy of the skill of legendary heroes would put a strain upon credulity.

To the clean spitter there was more to spitting than getting rid of spittle; he pressed two fingers at right angles to his lips and ejected an amber pellet of the size and force of a twenty-two, and left no trace on beard or chin.  But the sloven was more common, with wedges of deep brown at the corners of the mouth that looked, on the very old, like permanent scars, or with flares thinning to a lighter brown in white beards.  Spitting was no indication of social status; only the elegance with which it was done marked the man, who wiped his mouth with a handkerchief instead of the back of his hand.