Avoiding the Spread of the “Wasting” Disease

funnel two

Figure 1: Refined white earthenware funnel for a spitting cup. This funnel was recovered from a privy that was filled in the second quarter of the 19th century.

This odd little funnel is a recent addition to the collections at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab (Figure 1).  It was discovered in the 1980s in a Baltimore privy (18BC66) filled in the second quarter of the 19th century.  The shape of the rim, measuring 4.00” in diameter, suggested that it was meant to fit over another vessel. I speculated that it might have been used in the kitchen for filling jars with foodstuffs like preserves.  But then I found a match for this vessel, paired with a mug, in a circa 1830s English pottery pattern book (Figure 2).  Since the funnel and mug were shown on the same page as a bedpan, I began to suspect the funnel had a different type of utilitarian function.  A quick call to English ceramic specialist George L. Miller suggested that it was a spitting cup.

machine adn potts

Figure 2.  Page from the Machin and Potts Waterloo Works pattern book that depicts a spitting cup.  The pattern book is undated, but probably dates to the second quarter of the 19th century.

While this mug and funnel combination could have been used for expectorated tobacco juice, the more likely explanation is a medical one. Tuberculosis, known in the nineteenth century as consumption or the wasting disease, was a contagious bacterial lung infection that was often fatal before the development of anti-bacterial drugs in the 1940s.  Tuberculosis was spread by the coughed-up blood and mucus that was a typical symptom of this disease. Physicians were particularly concerned with the proper disposal of these fluids.  Handkerchiefs were discouraged, since they could easily spread the disease. Vessels that patients could spit into were considered a safer option, and several shapes and sizes were produced.  One manual advocated placing spittoons on stands or in wall niches, since it was believed it was more difficult “for a woman to hit the spittoon” if it was on the floor (Knopf 1900:191). The small mug sized version, sometimes called a “lady’s spittoon,” was easy for patients to carry around, as well as easily cleaned.  While our vessel is quite plain, spitting cups were also produced in more decorative printed patterns (Figure 3).


Figure 3.  Spitting cup printed in The Gem pattern, by Bovey Tracey (1801-1836).  From Sidall (2013).

Rest and a nutritious diet were the only real treatments for tuberculosis until antibacterial drugs were developed. Sanitoriums, retreats where sufferers could obtain medical care, became a way to isolate the contagious patients from the rest of the population. A late 19th-century directive for how to construct a sanitorium for the treatment of tuberculosis prescribed the size, floor and wall coverings and windows that each patient’s room should contain, as well as very specific directions that the furnishings include a “spitting-cup” (Gibson 1899:402).

Like any large city where the population live in close quarters, tuberculosis was a public health issue for Baltimore. The October 31, 1848 edition of the Baltimore Sun reported an epidemic of consumption in the city. Between 1875 and 1892, tuberculosis claimed almost 21,000 lives in Baltimore (DPS 1893). At the turn of the twentieth century, the city consistently ranked highest among U. S. urban areas for rates of tuberculosis (Roberts 2002:43).

Although tuberculosis is often considered a disease of the past, it is still a public health threat.  As recently as the 1960s, Baltimore “suffered the highest rate of tuberculosis infection of any large city in the country-75 cases per 100,000 people” (Mullin 2014).  Public health initiatives helped combat the disease significantly, and in 2013 the rate of infection was down to 4 per 100,000 people.


DPS (Department of Public Safety).  1893  Annual Report of the Sub-Department of Health, Department of Public Safety, for the Fiscal Year Ended December 31st, 1892.

Gibson, James Arthur.  1899  The Nordrach Cure Practicable in this Country.  The Nineteenth Century. A Monthly Review.  Edited by John Knowles. Volume XLV, pp 389-403.  Leonard Scott Publication Co., New York.

Knopf, S. A. 1900    Tuberculosis. (Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prophylaxis, and Treatment). In Twentieth Century Practice: An International Encyclopedia of Modern Medical Science. Volume XX: Tuberculosis, Yellow Fever, and Miscellaneous. Edited by Thomas Lathrop Stedman. William Wood and Company, New York. Pp 188-360. Website accessed on July 3, 2018 at https://books.google.com/books?id=WiFGAQAAMAAJ&pg=PR1&lpg=PR1&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Machin & Potts.Waterloo China Works, Burslem. Website accessed July 3, 2018 at http://www.northernceramicsociety.org/machin-potts-gallery-2/.

Mullin, Emily.  2014  Tuberculosis Remains a Threat Despite City’s Eradication Efforts.  The Baltimore Sun.  May 9, 2014. Website accessed July 3, 2018 at http://www.baltimoresun.com/health/bs-hs-tb-baltimore-20140509-story.html.

Roberts, Samuel Kelton. 2002  Infectious Fear: Tuberculosis, Public Health, and the Logic of Race and Illness in Baltimore, Maryland, 1880–1930.  Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University.

Sidall, Julie.  2013  Transferware Spitting Cups.  Dishy News; A Transferware Blog. http://dishynews.blogspot.com/2013/05/transferware-spitting-cups.html



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