The Honorable Member by Thomas Nast, in Charles Dickens's Pictures from Italy and American Notes (1877), Chapter VIII, "Washington. — The Legislature. — The President's House," 334. Wood-engraving, 4 ⅛ by 5 ⅜ inches (10.5 cm high by 13.6 cm wide), vignetted. Descriptive headline: "The White House" (335).

Passage Illustrated: An "Honorable" Member of The 27th Congress (1842)

The Senate is a dignified and decorous body, and its proceedings are conducted with much gravity and order. Both houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described. I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any account.

It is somewhat remarkable too, at first, to say the least, to see so many honourable members with swelled faces; and it is scarcely less remarkable to discover that this appearance is caused by the quantity of tobacco they contrive to stow within the hollow of the cheek. It is strange enough, too, to see an honourable gentleman leaning back in his tilted chair with his legs on the desk before him, shaping a convenient "plug" with his penknife, and when it is quite ready for use, shooting the old one from his mouth, as from a pop-gun, and clapping the new one in its place. [Chapter VIII, "Washington, The Legislature, and The President's House," 333]

Commentary: The Ubiquitous Spittoon even in The House of Representatives

The chewing and smoking of tabacco seem almost to have been indications of patriotism for most of the American adult males whom Dickens encountered on his initial Reading Tour. Nast seems to have felt Dickens's disgust with the chewing and spitting of tobacco; indeed, the "National Spittoon" in his illustration for Chapter VIII supplants that other symbol of American politics, The White House, which was the subject of A. B. Frost's illustration for this chapter.

With characteristic political satire, Nast depicts the Members of The House of Representatives with their feet up on their desks, reading newspapers and chewing tobacco, rather than attending to the nation's business. The principal subject of the plate squints as if straining to hear and see the proceedings, and Nast has positioned a copy of the American Constitution under his feet, as if to imply wilful disrespect. In the previous illustration, The National Spittoon, Nast has already derided Washington, D. C., as "The Head-Quarters of Tobacco-Tinctured Saliva," as if the enormous spittoon rather than The White House or The Capitol is a more fitting symbol for the legislative and executive functions of the American federal government. Here the cartoonist reinforces the connection between the repulsive consumption of tobacco and irresponsible politicians as he has provided two substantial receptacles for the reception of saliva in the present illustration, ironically named The Honorable Member. Nast implies through his choice of reading-matter, the newspaper The Southern Brave, that the half-asleep, ill-kempt Congressman represents one of the Southern states, where tobacco was chiefly cultivated: Virginia, the Carolinas, Maryland, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In contrast, A. B. Frost in the British Household Edition (1880) shows neither a spittoon, nor the chewing or even smoking of tobacco among the dozen visitors to The White House.

Commentary: The Legislature

By "Legislature" (a term generally applied to state Houses of Assembly) Dickens seems to mean "The Congress" since he refers to the deplorable state of "both houses." Nast reconstructs the goings-on in the chamber of the House of Representatives in 1842 to describe a typical, tobacco-chewing "Representative," probably a legislator from the Southern, tobacco-growing states. The Congressman depicted would have been one of 241 regularly elected members, but whether he would have been a single-district representative or an at-large representative neither Dickens nor Nast makes clear. He is either a member of the governing Whig Party or member of the Democratic Party in the 27th Congress (which sat from 4 March 1841 through 4 March 1843). Nast underscores the mental vacuity of the bleary-eyed "Honorable Member," who seems stupified as he attempts to chew a quad of tobacco cut from the chunk in his hand. The chewer fails to attend to the debate in progress, as Nast indicates by the gesticulating speaker in the background. By the time that Nast was illustrating American Notes, the smoking of cigarettes and cigars had largely supplanted the consumption of tobacco as chew or snuff.

The Equivalent British Household Edition Illustration (1880)

Above: A. B. Frost's less humorous and more sober scene representing American politics, In The White House (1880). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Related Materials

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Dickens, Charles. Chapter VIII: "Washington. — The Legislature. — The President's House." Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz and American Notes. Illustrated by Thomas Nast and Arthur B. Frost. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877 (copyrighted in 1876). 329-36.

Dickens, Charles. Chapter VIII: "Washington. The Legislature. And The President's House." American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by J. Gordon Thomson and A. B. Frost. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880. 297-312.

Kent, Christopher. "Smoking and Tobacco." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. New York: Garland, 1988. 727.

"Tobacco Industry." Dictionary of American History. The Gale Group: 2003.

Created 23 May 2019

Last modified 12 June 2020