By Jim Buchanan
Today we think of the common housefly as a nuisance, but a century ago it was considered a serious threat to the health of American society.
Thanks to a combination of factors, that was a fair assessment. Personal hygiene wasn’t very advanced in some corners; household plumbing was practically nonexistent in some spots; and the automobile had yet to replace the horse as the primary means of transportation.
Given that an average horse can produce up to 50 pounds of manure a day, or about nine tons over the course of a year, houseflies had, shall we say, a target-rich environment for spreading germs, and spread germs they did.
For a time it was thought houseflies were responsible for spreading polio, probably the most feared disease 100 years ago. They were definitely connected to the spread of typhoid. As a result there were campaigns mounted against the housefly from coast to coast. From the Jackson County Journal, March 25, 1919:
THE FILTHY FLY IS COMING
WITH TYPHOID FEVER
With the appearance of the beautiful, warm spring days, there comes an increase in the number of flies carrying filth laden with the germs of typhoid fever and of diarrheal diseases of children. While we love and enjoy the beautiful spring, we must not become so charmed with its beauties that we forget the danger of its contemporary – the fly.
The warmth of spring multiplies disease germs and hatches the eggs of flies, which multiply very rapidly and soon one germ or one fly makes millions. Flies select filth for their breeding places, and often filth in which the diarrheal and typhoid fever germs live, for instance, human filth. When the flies are large enough, they fly away from their breeding places, carrying with them into the houses filth laden with disease germs. The filth is deposited on the bread, in the milk, or wherever the flies alight. Flies have filthy habits. They alight first on filth then on your bread. They ply between the privy and the home. Nobody likes a fly, so help prevent them by cleaning up and destroying their breeding places.
With the approach of spring and the increased number of flies, typhoid fever begins, and it continues to spread until it reaches its height in the heat of August or September. Then comes a rapid decrease in the number of cases, with the cooler weather and the decrease in flies.
Knowing that the typhoid fever season is near at hand, and knowing that vaccination prevents the disease, the only sensible thing, for those who have not had the disease and those who have not been vaccinated in three years, is to be vaccinated at once.
People have a great deal of sympathy for those who get sick and die of diseases which can’t be prevented, but they have little sympathy for those who die of typhoid fever. People are beginning to look upon typhoid as a filthy disgraceful disease which is easily prevented, and to look upon anybody who dies of typhoid as doing so of his own accord, for by vaccination the disease is prevented, and anybody can very easily get vaccinated.
In this state, the number of typhoid cases has been reduced from 8,390 in 1914 to 5,140 in 1918, and deaths have been reduced from 839 in 1914 to 514 in 1918. These cases and deaths were prevented by vaccination, sanitary privies and screened homes.
Dr. A.A. Nichols
The good Dr. Nichols minced no words in his warnings, but he wasn’t the preeminent crusader against the housefly in Western North Carolina. That honor falls to Dr. Lewis McCormick of Asheville.
McCormick is credited for launching the first campaign to eradicate houseflies, targeting garbage dumps, stagnant ponds and particularly the city’s 18 livery stables.
Reporting from the era indicates some thought McCormick to be a bit of an eccentric but was generally humored, to the point the town enacted a fly ordinance that made it illegal for manure to be exposed on any property for more than six days, required flyproof bins at all stables and carried steep fines. McCormick also launched an aggressive “swat the fly” campaign.
Elsewhere around the country “swat the fly” campaigns were all the rage.
A “swat the fly” campaign in West Virginia offered 10 cents per hundred dead flies; a similar campaign in Cleveland opened at the same prices but dropped to 10 cents per quart after “the swatters got to going right.”
The champion of a Colorado Boys Club contest brought in a tally of four pounds of dead flies.
McCormick’s popularity faded a bit when warrants were served on eight of the livery stable owners. Still, his campaign was deemed a success. He died from heart complications in 1922; Asheville named McCormick Field, home of baseball’s Tourists, in his honor.