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“Chewing” tobacco was the most common method of tobacco consumption in mid-19th century America. 

tobacco plug
Tobacco twist, used for pipe-smoking or chewing

Chewing has been superceded by cigarettes, but several of my old beloved great uncles in North Carolina “chewed.” (A couple of them also smoked cigarettes; the women never chewed and rarely smoked.) These men were great-grandsons of Phoebe F., whose first husband died in June ’62 at Ellerson’s Mill, Virginia (story); her second husband was our ancestor.

In good weather, while the adults sat on the porch talking about who had what plot of land, my sister and I chased each other and my grandparents’ chihuahua all over the place, and dared each other to peek into the grossness that was the coffee can spittoon. To us, it was a game, but Charles Dickens saw nothing fun about “chewing and expectorating” on his 1842 visit to Washington, DC:

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 public buildings, visitors are implored…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…. (from American Notes)

A woman of New York complained, too, in both aesthetic and practical terms of tobacco use:

No female, no matter how ordinarily dressed she may be, but what must suffer from being compelled to wade through the streams of tobacco juice that are constantly ejected from the moss-covered lips of a very large majority of the ‘Lords of Creation’ that throng this great thoroughfare.

In a day of floor-length skirts that were not “wash and wear,” it must have been a trial indeed. Apropos of this dilemna, I imagine that flounces, sometimes detachable, at the hem of dresses and crinolines and cloaks, were fashionable largely because they allowed a woman to easily and economically replace the dirtiest and most worn part of her clothes.

Back to chewing…. The plug or twist illustrated was probably good for three to five chews. The user would bite off or cut off a chunk, work it around a bit to moisten it, then tongue it up between upper gum (left or right) and cheek. The “chew”, or “chaw” to be extra-colloquial, wasn’t literally chewed the way we chew gum, but rather just shifted around and perhaps gently toothed, to keep it juicy. Rare is the chewer who swallows the juice. The nicotine gets absorbed through the mouth tissues and the juice is spit out. Eventually, the plug is spit out.

My uncles were able to talk while storing up a pretty good “spit,” much to the delighted horror of my sister and me.

Sources: Harp Week; petrified twist

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