Sawdust

In Brief

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries "sawdust" was commonly spread on the floors of pubs, cheap restaurants, butcher shops, and other businesses to soak up spilled drinks, mucus, blood, and worse. The idea was to provide an absorbent layer that could be cleaned up every night, but in practice many businesses simply sprinkled new sawdust on top of the old, and sanitation concerns led to the banning of the practice in many cities as the century wore on, especially in businesses where food was produced or sold.

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In many cities of Ireland, England, and America, if nowhere else, sawdust dealers went around to local businesses every workday, selling fresh supplies of their product. They catered to lower-class establishments. At the beginning of "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T. S. Eliot paints a vivid picture of such parts of town: "Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels, / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells."

When Bloom stands in Burton's restaurant in Lestrygonians, his nose, ears, stomach, and brain in revolt, sawdust is part of the picture: "Smells of men. His gorge rose. Spat-on sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarettesmoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment." A few paragraphs later in the same chapter, indulging vegetarian thoughts, he thinks of butcher shops: "Butchers’ buckets wobbly lights. Give us that brisket off the hook. Plup. Rawhead and bloody bones. Flayed glasseyed sheep hung from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered snivelling nosejam on sawdust."

Given this context, it seems less remarkable (though no less distasteful) that in Barney Kiernan's pub in Cyclops the Citizen "cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner. / —After you with the push, Joe, says he, taking out his handkerchief to swab himself dry." Such behavior was clearly accepted in establishments with sawdust on the floor. In the cabman's shelter in Eumaeus, Murphy answers one of Bloom's questions by "simply letting spurt a jet of spew into the sawdust."

In Bella Cohen's brothel it appears that sawdust is used for still more elemental bodily functions. Interrogating Bloom over his interest in the female way of urinating—to which he replies plaintively, "Science. To compare the various joys we each enjoy. (Earnestly.) And really it’s better the position... because often I used to wet..."—Bello barks, "(Sternly.) No insubordination! The sawdust is there in the corner for you. I gave you strict instructions, didn’t I? Do it standing, sir! I’ll teach you to behave like a jinkleman! If I catch a trace on your swaddles." If there are records of sawdust being used in brothels to soak up urine, I have not run across them. But it would not be surprising given the abysmal poverty of North Inner City tenements, and of course wood shavings are used for this purpose in horse stalls and other livestock enclosures.

Thanks to Vincent Van Wyk for getting me thinking about sawdust on pub floors.

JH 2020
5 July 1921 photograph of restaurant in the Lanier Hotel, New York City, with sleeping mousers and sawdust on the floor, from 5x7 glass negative owned by the Bain News Service. Source: restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com.