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


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

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


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


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

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.

January 19, 2017

EXTRA! Montana Newspaper Stories 1864-1922: Sarah (Sallie) Gammon Bickford

Born into slavery, Sarah Gammon Bickford came west to Montana as the nanny for a Federal judge in 1871. Making Virginia City her home, she married a black miner with whom she had three children, all of whom died in childhood. She then married a white man and had four more children. Her second husband’s death left her the majority owner of the Virginia City Water Company, which she soon owned entirely after purchasing the rest of the stock. She was the first and only woman in Montana to own a utility. Sallie died in 1931.

Key dates

1855—Sarah (called Sallie) Eva Blair is born a slave in Tennessee.
1866—Freed from slavery, she moves to Knoxville, Tennessee to live with her aunt, Nancy Gammon. She takes Gammon as her last name.
1871—Travels to Virginia City, Montana, as a nanny for Judge John Luttrell Murphy.
1872—Marries miner John Brown, divorcing him eight years later.
1881—Ten-year-old daughter Eva dies.
1883—Marries Stephen (Dick) Bickford.
1890—Inherits two-thirds ownership in Virginia City Water Company.
1902—Purchases all remaining Water Company stock.

From the newspapers

To find more

Search for these terms in combination, proximity, or as phrases: sallie bickford, sallie brown, mrs. bickford, dick bickford, elmer bickford, virginia city water company

Written by Catherine W. Ockey

January 12, 2017

Imagining History

by Tom Ferris, Archival Photographer

The Montana Historical Society photograph archives is home to approximately 500,000 photographs, in print and negative form. A large portion of the collection can be identified by subject, photographer, place, and date - and quite a bit of it by only one or two of those identifiers. I’d like to share with you a photograph that falls into that second category and has always led me to imagine what the unknown details are. We know the photograph was made by Evelyn Cameron, in the Fallon/Terry, Montana area, and probably in 1912. The questions of who and why remain a mystery. Why a photograph was made can be one of the most important aspects of understanding an image.

PAc # 90-87 G046-001 [Perhaps Norman Wold  Circa 1912]
Photographer: Evelyn Cameron

As an archival photographer here at MHS, I have been lucky enough to work with the Evelyn Cameron collection over the course of the last twenty years. This is my favorite photo collection being housed and preserved here, and we recently digitized about 650 of Cameron’s glass plate and nitrate negatives and uploaded the images to the Montana Memory Project. You can see them here.

One of the benefits of scanning film, (in this case a 3”x5” glass plate negative) at a high resolution is that we get to see details in the image which had gone unnoticed in print form. This is especially true if enlarged prints had not been made. While working on this image, (which could be of Norman Wold) I enlarged it on the screen to check for sharpness and quality and was surprised to find an earring in the mans’ left ear. This is a very uncommon accessory for white men of European descent at this time in western history, and it made me look more closely and inquisitively at this portrait.

Why an earring? Is this man a Gypsy? A sailor who has crossed the equator or sailed the seven seas? Why has this photo been made? Is this a tribute to the mans’ lost wife made for her distant family? Is it an advertisement for a far away potential bride – a form of Match.com from the turn of the century?

In Evelyn Cameron’s detailed diaries there are some references to a Mr. Wold who is a blacksmith, and a Mrs. Wold who is sick and expected to die in 1912. The photograph is identified as circa 1912 and seems to portray a home and possessions that the man is proud of. He is letting the viewer know that he is literate by displaying books and holding a newspaper. We can guess that family is important to him due to the presence of the photo albums. There are lace curtains in the windows and a fine tablecloth pinned to an oilcloth cover on the table. The subject is wearing a clean white shirt and tailored jacket. We can also see the right hand in detail, resting on a nicely embroidered blanket, and the left hand grasping a newspaper. These are the hands of a working man, perhaps a blacksmith – perhaps Norman Wold.

The presence of the woman’s hat caringly displayed on the chair covered in a blanket and fine white linens leads me to think the photograph may have been made for her family, but after considering this image so often I’d like to believe that the image served two purposes – a tribute to her and their marriage, and an advertisement for him. I don’t know much about “Norman Wold” but I hope he found someone and was happy. Considering the care he took in displaying his wife’s belongings, he may have been the kind of person who made someone else happy too.

I enjoy wondering about an unknown story contained in an image as much as I like learning the history when we do have the facts and documentation. If you have information regarding this particular photograph, please drop us a line at mhslibrary@mt.gov or give us a call at 406-444-4739.

If you are interested in further reading about Evelyn Cameron and viewing more of her work the MHS Museum Store carries “Photographing Montana 1894-1928 – The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron” by author Donna Lucey. It is an amazing story and the photographs are wonderful.