You know those urinal troughs on the floor at the base of bars in old-time taprooms?
Well, zip it up guys. Despite the common myth, the fact is those troughs are not, were not and never were intended to be used as urinals. In fact, the troughs are spittoons, a handy place to puh-tooey a wad of slobbery tobacco juice.
Common sense alone should tell you they weren’t designed for barstool urination. Never mind the whole socially unacceptable aspect of whipping out one’s wand in a public place. Consider that there’s no backsplash, and the gutters typically measure only about eight inches in width. As anyone who’s ever had to scrub a toilet will tell you, men – especially after a few belts – are hardly expert marksmen.
Nonetheless, the myth persists.
At Kelliann’s Bar & Grill, 16th and Spring Garden streets, the manager told me the trough was “for urinating, so you didn’t lose your seat at the bar when you had to go.”
The 25-foot-long trough running along the bar at the 112-year-old Cherry Street Tavern (129 N. 22nd St) is cited by both Wikipedia and the city’s tourism agency as a urinal. Even Philadelphia Weekly repeated the fiction, reporting a decade ago that, “In the good old days men drank, ate and whizzed at the same time.”
I ran the myth past Lou Capozzoli, the owner of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar in South Philadelphia, where a tiled trough runs along the base of an oak bar. He scoffed when I asked if it was used as a urinal:
“I never seen anyone pee in it. My father had the trough installed after buying the place in 1938. If anybody had peed in there, my father would have killed ‘em.”
Capozzoli continued: “You have to realize that bars were a lot different back then. They were dirty. Men would toss their stogies on the floor, people would spit tobacco. My father installed the trough with running water – it still works, by the way – and you’d sweep everything into it, then wash it out three, four times a day.”
The historical record confirms Capozzoli’s memory.
The drawing in an 1897 patent for a barroom trough looks identical to the type still found around town, and its description indicates it was intended as a spittoon. Earlier, open sawdust boxes and widemouth earthenware jugs were used for barroom slobber.
Early 20th-century saloons weren’t particularly sanitary. A hygiene manual published by Harvard University in 1911 noted, “When a man steps up to a bar in a public saloon, he is apt to rub elbows with the scum of the earth,” where the patrons are infested with cankers and “a large percentage of bartenders are syphilitic.”
But when they had to relieve themselves, men didn’t just casually let loose a stream. They took it to the outhouse or water closet. The trough on the floor, the manual said, was “for use as a cuspidor and a receptacle for the froth that some men insist upon blowing off their mug of beer…”
Now, I’ll concede there might’ve been occasions when a barroom patron used one to take an ill-considered leak. This is Philadelphia, after all – a town where Eagles fans once commonly peed in the bathroom sinks of old Veterans Stadium.
But let’s put this myth to rest. Those are spittoons, not urinals.