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.
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
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.