January 26, 2017

Public Enemy #1 - The House Fly

by Natasha Hollenbach, Digital Services Technician

Have you ever looked at a house fly and thought that it might be the cause of your death? Probably not, but during the early 1900s, the house fly was denounced by public health officials and newspapers across the country.

Called the Queen of the Rubbish Heap [1], the house fly was blamed for transmitting every major contagious disease, including typhoid, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and smallpox. Thus the house fly stood at the crossroads of two movements in public health, the scientific quest to understand the nature and causes of disease and the resulting effort to prevent them.

Roundup Record (Roundup, MT)
July 28, 1911 p1

chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

One of the notable aspects of the cartoon above is that Judge Science is presiding. In newspapers, the life cycle and habits of the house fly were discussed and condemned. In one notable article, the author concludes that the house fly is more evil than the bed bug and that all the public’s revulsion of the bed bug should be transferred to the house fly. [2]

Whitefish Pilot (Whitefish, MT)
June 29, 1911 p6

chroniclingamerica.loc.gov
But just knowing the house fly was the culprit wasn’t enough. It was time to use this newfound knowledge of their habits against them. A major campaign was instituted to exterminate the house fly. Newspapers carried advice from public health officials about how to fly proof homes and deny flies their breeding grounds. This task became so ubiquitous that it carried over into poetry and advertisements. Indeed even school children were brought into the act.  When the Montana State Board of Health 1911 conducted an essay contest in 1911, one of the three topics was “The Evils of the House Fly, and How the House Fly can be Eradicated.” [3]






Saco Independent (Saco, MT)
August 6, 1915 p8

montananewspapers.org

The Enterprise (Malta, MT)
June 15, 1910 p4

chroniclingamerica.loc.gov























But the house fly was really only part of a larger problem: sanitation. The house fly was so dangerous because of the conditions. One of the other essay topics from that same Board of Health contest was “For the best description of an unsanitary back yard located in the district in which the child writing the essay lives, and the evils of such a back yard. Please note that the evils of the back yard should be treated not only from the standpoint of the effect on individuals owning and conducting the yard, but from the standpoint of the effect of such a yard on the community at large.” This focus led to community “clean-up days” in which either the state or community chose a day, usually in early spring, when all businesses and schools closed so everyone could focus on cleaning up the rubbish that had accumulated over the winter. The Clean-up Pointers below give insight to the mindset of the people and a glimpse of the conditions of their daily lives.

Blackfoot Optimist (Blackfoot Idaho)
April 1, 1915 p7

chroniclingamerica.loc.gov
It’s easy to take our living conditions for granted so the next time you see a house fly stop and consider that a hundred years ago it might have caused your death. Then swat it with a fly swatter. After all, it’s still a potential public health hazard.

[1] The Libby Herald. (Libby, MT), July 25, 1913, p6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.
[2] "The House-Fly and B.B." The Yellowstone Monitor. (Glendive, MT), July 4, 1912, p8. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.
[3] "Sanitary Education -- Contest for School Children." The Enterprise. (Malta, MT), October 12, 1911, p1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

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