A century ago, in the age of the swill pail and the manure heap, back when window screens were still a luxury, the sight of a common house fly zooming through your kitchen could provoke pandemonium. That was when fears of typhoid, diphtheria, cholera and other serious illnesses believed to be fostered in “filth” still ranked high on America’s list of dreaded diseases.
Progressive cities such as Bangor launched “Swat-the-fly” campaigns. “WAR IS DECLARED ON THE HOUSE FLY,” announced a headline in the Bangor Daily News on June 24, 1912, marking the beginning of an anti-fly movement in the Queen City of the East.
The generals in command were the ladies of the Bangor Federation of Women’s Clubs, a coalition consisting of the Athene Club, the Norumbega Club, the Nineteenth Century Club and other groups intent on improving the city. Their intended troops included the schoolchildren of Bangor. The little ones were handed pamphlets describing in graphic terms why and how they should crush, poison, trap, drown and even electrocute loathsome house flies using an astounding array of lethal procedures. What child could resist such an invitation?
“Flies should be kept out of houses, killed if they enter them, and prevented from hatching their eggs in stables, manure heaps, swill pails and other filthy places [such as outhouses]. … Flies are filthy. They are born in filth; they feed on filth; they walk on filth; and then with filth sticking to their feet, legs and bodies, they feed and walk on the food which has been prepared for human beings to eat,” according to the circular provided by the club women.
Filth was a polite word in the Victorian era for all those words-that-could-not-be-spoken by polite people having to do with human and animal waste and garbage. Polite people used the word filth, or perhaps “dirt” if they were particularly squeamish.
The ladies, however, knew what would appeal to youngsters. They asked, “It would disgust you wouldn’t it, if you saw a fly feeding on the filth of the street, the stable, the garbage can, or on something even worse, and then saw the same fly go through the open door or window of your dining room and wipe his feet on the sugar, tangle his legs in the butter or take a bath in the milk?”
The list of solutions in 1912 in some cases sound worse than the problem. It included:
• Screen stables, if possible.
• Remove the manure at least twice a week.
• Keep the manure, while it is in the stable, in a closed bin or pit.
• Every time the stalls are cleaned, and the manure placed in the pit or bin, sprinkle it with dry plaster (powdered gypsum) or slaked lime.
• If flies begin to breed in stored manure they may be killed by thoroughly spraying it with kerosene or Paris green and then pouring on enough water to wash the oil or poison well in.
• It is well to abolish old-fashioned outhouses when possible. Where this cannot be done, a liberal amount of lime should be used, applied in small amounts daily.
• Garbage cans should be thoroughly cleaned after emptying, and the contents should be sprinkled with crude oil, lime or kerosene oil.
• Screen the doors and windows of your home. If you cannot do this, at least screen the food itself, especially the milk, in which germs multiply with more than ordinary rapidity.
• If flies do get in the house in spite of screens, they may be killed or trapped. Sticky fly-paper and a variety of traps may be used, as well as poisoned fly-paper.
• A host of poisons were available. They included bichromate of potash in solution dissolved with some sugar and placed about the house in shallow dishes.
• To clear a room of flies, heat a shovel and pour on it 20 drops of carbolic acid, the circular advised. The vapor killed the flies. (Ingesting carbolic acid was also a popular way to commit suicide according to numerous newspaper stories from the era.)
• Flies would “fall to the floor stupefied” if the householder burned pyrethrum powder. “It will burn slowly and the odor is not disagreeable,” said the circular.
Nowhere did the good ladies of the federation of Bangor women’s clubs warn children not to try some of these chemistry experiments without adult supervision.
The leaflet told the children to clean up any filth and garbage around their homes and to tell their neighbors to do the same. They were advised to stay away from grocers, butchers and bakers who did not place screens around their goods, and to lobby for a food-screening ordinance in their town and to make sure it was enforced.
The July 1912 edition of the Bulletin of the State Board of Health of Maine, which I found at the Bangor Public Library, was devoted to the anti-fly campaign. Much of the material handed out to Bangor school children appears to have originated from this bulletin.
The handwritten minutes of the Bangor Federation of Women’s Clubs can also be seen at the Bangor Public Library. In addition to enlisting children in their crusade, the club women asked school “medical inspectors” to speak to them in their schools.
The manager of the Bijou Theater was asked to show a movie on “the deadly work of the fly.” The ladies also took it upon themselves to approach a few Bangor bakers, fruit dealers and grocers, urging them to wrap or screen their products.
Public officials were also involved in the war against the fly and other unsanitary conditions involving food. The Bangor City Council passed an order launching an inspection of “the meat carts in Pickering Square — whether or not their contents are exposed to dust and other unfavorable influences.” State inspectors had already ordered regular retail stores to put food under glass under a law passed in 1911, said the Bangor Daily News on July 10, 1912.
The war was on. I suspect, however, the rise of the automobile, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, rising pay checks allowing people to afford screens and medical advances had more to do with defeating the fly’s reign of terror and the deadly diseases related to it.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.