Disposal dilemma

 What those troughs on his­tor­ic bar­room floors were really used for 

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.