These days, smokers are largely forced outside, even on the Capitol campus. But Congress’ long history is entwined with tobacco.
Within the past 20 years, the snuffboxes were placed in protective cases and the tobacco was taken out. It had been decades since any senator actually took a pinch, though the supply did need to be replenished from time to time. The Senate Curator’s office theorizes that some Senate pages might have gotten a little curious.
A 1931 Baltimore Sun article notes that former Sen. Lee Slater Overman, D-N.C., (1903-1930) was the last known senator to visit the snuffbox for his fix. The article also notes that it was an old Senate adage that “a pinch of snuff clears the head of superfluous ideas.” The phrase, for whatever reason, did not stick.
The snuffboxes entered the Senate when Vice President Millard Fillmore got tired of senators, in one of the more peculiar Senate dilatory tactics, interrupting speeches to come to the snuff urn. Fillmore told Assistant Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett to ditch the urn and purchase two lacquer boxes for the snuff.
Bassett did, and the snuffboxes and the spittoons remain to this day in the chamber.
In 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that even though no senator had used the spittoons for tobacco emissions in decades, they would stay.
“I use mine to throw a few pieces of wastepaper in it,” Reid said. “It is traditional. That is the Senate.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.