Frontier Doc

Spittle, Flies and Dixie Cups

Don’t spit on the sidewalk!


The Old West frontier town was dirty, dusty, smelly and often dangerously unhealthy.

In those early days most people did not understand or appreciate certain sanitary notions that are taken for granted today. These axioms of public health (often ignored, even today) range from covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing, washing one’s hands after going to the bathroom (or outhouse), keeping flies away from food, not sharing a common drinking cup or wash towel and, my favorite, not spitting on the sidewalk.

Whether taking careful aim at a barroom spittoon or “letting loose” onto boardwalk planks, sick, TB consumptive or, more commonly, tobacco-chewing adult males sometimes spread filth into their environment, often without a second glance from those near the line of fire. Although perhaps grossly offended by such behavior, most adults simply did not understand the potential lethality of being targeted by the infectious aerosol or splatter.

The danger of flies (with resulting maggots) was more commonly linked to food spoilage than to food contamination. The latter was often caused by toxic E. coli bacteria, riding on the flies’ feet, embedded within tiny amounts of cow dung from a nearby corral.

The most modern frontier hotels at the close of the 19th century may have had a “water closet” or indoor bathroom, usually shared by...

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