Just the other day, I chased down the last fly in the house. I smashed it against a window pane and put the flyswatter away until spring.As a Kansan, I’m proud to celebrate the centennial of the flyswatter. In 1906, Samuel J. Crumbine, Kansas Secretary of Public Health, published his first “Fly Bulletin.” He exposed the fly as a germ-carrying spreader of diseases. A public nuisance. In his bulletins, he wrote things like: “The fly is the disseminator of the three D’s: Dirt, Diarrhea and Disease; which often result in the three T’s: Typhoid, Tuberculosis and Toxins; and which should teach us to cultivate the three C’s: Care, Caution and Cleanliness.” He even wrote doggerel: “I’m not an orientalist–/ I never wash my feet;/ But every single chance I get/ I walk on what you eat./ Buzz, buzz, busy fly …”
Such discourse would not change public habit. Then, one night, at a baseball game, Dr. Crumbine saw a batter hit a high fly ball right over the fence. An excited fan screamed, “Did you see him swat that fly!” Crumbine had found a campaign slogan; he soon beseeched the world to “Swat that Fly!”
But swatting flies was not easy without a flyswatter. Enter another Kansan, Frank Rose, of Weir City. He and his Boy Scout troop were following Crumbine’s advice and helping the good folks of Weir City screen their windows. Crumbine’s motto: “Screens are cheaper than doctor bills.” Crumbine also offered a bounty for dead flies, and to make that easier, the boys cut leftover screening into small squares and nailed them to the ends of yard sticks to make what they called “Fly Bats.”
Frank Rose traveled to Topeka for an audience with the Kansas Secretary of Public Health. Crumbine examined the invention, declared it wonderful, then said, “But that’s not a fly bat, it’s a flyswatter!” Word spread, and soon people all over the state were wielding swatters. They were handed out at the State Fair, County Fairs, and at fly parades all over Kansas.
Never been to a fly parade? Children, dressed as flies, pushed baby carriages with coffins in them through the streets of their towns. They created huge flyswatters and chased each other down Main Street. They marched with bushel baskets of dead flies. In 1914, the school children of Hutchinson killed 224 pounds, 37 bushels of flies, for an estimated 7 million dead.
Crumbine’s film,”The Busy Fly,” shows a mother dipping milk from a pail to feed her baby. “The Vile Fly” buzzes into the milk pail, and the mother dips another ladle full. Enter “Sammy, A Smart Little Boy” to prevent the mother from feeding her baby with the contaminated milk. He kills the fly and saves the day.
Maybe the world was simpler in 1906. But the propaganda Crumbine developed against the fly is the same as that used in China in the 1950s. And in Africa today. All of it resides in the special collections wing of the University of Kansas Medical Center library.
As the flyswatter celebrates its centennial, it is not as cherished as it might be, but what else is so ubiquitous and useful?
Before 2006 is over, think of the flyswatter. Think of Kansas in a different way, as the Flyswatter State. And remember: always “Swat That Fly.”
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here