Today, we generally think of flies as more of a nuisance than a health hazard. But in the early 20th century, flies spreading typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis and other diseases was a true public safety concern.
In 1912, government officials encouraged farmers to keep stables clean, use screens in doors and windows and fly-catching devices to protect against flies carrying typhoid, according to The Frederick Post.
“The educational propaganda against the fly is only begun. When people generally — all the people — come to realize that flies are more dangerous than rattlesnakes, that, in short, the common housefly is the most deadly dangerous insect that lives, the fight for extermination will grow in ferocity and it will be never ceasing,” according to the Baltimore American via The News.
Fly catching contests were popular in many Maryland towns and cities, including Baltimore, Hagerstown, Cumberland, Frederick and Westminster. They were a way of engaging the public and getting rid of the pests, with organizations and clubs paying participants for the amount of flies they caught (by the pint or quart typically) or by hosting contests to see who could catch the most flies.
For example, in 1912 in Westminster (Carroll County), 99 children collected 158,153 flies in one month, with the top girl collecting 13,010 flies and the top boy collecting 29,092. The paper went as far as to list the name of each child who participated and the amount of flies he or she caught on its front page (Elizabeth Wampler and Charles Grumbine were the top girl and boy collector, in case you were curious).
The Times estimated that a total of 200,000 flies were exterminated that May after learning “nearly every housewife in the town has been killing all the flies possible” in addition to the ones the children had collected.
“Allowing for the normal increase,” the paper surmised, “this means that we will have two hundred million less flies in our midst in August as one fly in May means a million in August.”
The transformation of the fly’s role in society was pondered by The News in 1911.
“Years ago the fly was looked upon as a friend to mankind, eating up filth and generally cleansing properties,” the paper reflected. “Time has since changed and now the pest is not considered a help but a nuisance and a danger to public health.”
Sources: Denton Journal, August 4, 1917; The Frederick Post, August 2, 1911; The News, July 24, 1911, July 29, 1911, August 26, 1912; The Times, June 7, 1912