Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Model Mormon Fly-Trap

The Model Mormon Fly-Trap

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 16, 2009

The world of our great-grandparents in the first quarter of the 20th century was a dirtier, smellier place than we often realize:

Outhouses were vastly more common than sewers in rural areas. Even though Salt Lake City had built its first sewers in 1890, those systems served only a small part of the city, leaving outhouses in use throughout the Valley. South Salt Lake City didn’t vote to raise funds for building its first sewer system until late in 1938. And even the few sewers in operation were not sanitary in any sense – the early ones drained sewage into open canals that emptied into the Great Salt Lake.

Horses were still in use as motive power. This meant quantities of manure deposited on city streets, and even larger piles of manure in the stabling areas of businesses and private homes. And horses died – there were laws for the proper removal of carcasses, laws which were not entirely effective.

Many rural families, and even some in urban areas, kept a cow and chickens near the home. Milk goats were not unknown in Salt Lake City during those years.

Garbage pickup service did exist in urban areas. Plastic garbage bags and trash cans were unknown, though, and leaking fluids and escaping odors were routine facts of life.

Homes and businesses were heated by coal and wood, resulting in air pollution most of us can only vaguely imagine – the air in cities was so dirty that the cleaning of wallpaper by use of doughy commercial products was an annual chore in most households. While the temporary home-lot storage of ashes didn’t necessarily add to the urban odor problem, ash cans and ash piles contributed to the overall grime of the home environment, which conceivably led to increased litter and general dirt.

One result of all of that? Flies. Lots of flies. Plagues of flies.

Public campaigns to clean up fly-breeding messes were a regular part of life in the United States. Although I can’t find a reference this moment when I need one, I have seen Salt Lake newspaper articles about bounties being offered for pints and quarts of dead flies.

So why write about that on a Mormon-themed blog?

Because Primary children were regularly enlisted in the battle against flies. Primary manuals from the early 1920s include fly-trapping and garbage cleanup as suggestions for implementing lessons on beauty in the home and service to the community.

Over and over, to the point where I have lost track of how many times I have seen it, this illustration for “An Effective Out-of-Door Fly Trap” appears in the lesson materials for Primary classes, Boy Scouts, and the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association. Other models are occasionally given, but this one appears so often that I have dubbed it the “Model Mormon Fly Trap”:

To make [it] we need a wooden box, such as a soda cracker box or any box you may have. Cut the sides of box so as to form legs about two inches long. In the top of [the] box cut a round hole about 7 inches in diameter. Make a funnel of wire netting with an opening three-fourths of an inch at top. Tack this funnel to the edge of the hole. Then tack enough wire netting to go around box and extend up above box about twice as high as the funnel-shaped wire. Lap over, pin, using nails as pins, the ends of wire together, both on the side and top as shown in the picture.

Place a shallow plate containing a fish head or some sugar and water under the trap directly under the large opening. The flies go to the bait, then rise into funnel and so enter the trap. They soon die and can be emptied out into a piece of paper and burned. (To remove the dead flies, take out the nail pins at the top and empty.)

If a fish head is used for bait, protect it from cats and renew it at least twice a week. No matter what bait is used, care must be taken to burn it because it will contain a great number of fly eggs.

So should you ever have the need of a fly trap, here’s a model with a claim on your loyalty. It’s part of your heritage!



  1. I should perhaps apologize for such a weird and off-putting post. I’m really startled by the number of times I see that photo in the old magazines, though. Since the Bloggernacle is likely to talk about nothing but that ridiculous HBO soap opera this morning, I hoped a few readers might welcome something — anything — else. Even flies.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 16, 2009 @ 6:34 am

  2. Yes, I’m already tired of the HBO soap opera talk. Thanks for providing an alternative.

    Comment by Hunter — March 16, 2009 @ 7:04 am

  3. Oh, Was that on yesterday? The fly trap is far more interesting.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 16, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  4. I sure like you guys, and how we can not-talk about things together.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 16, 2009 @ 8:30 am

  5. I just heard a rumor that HBO is planning on incorporating the so-called Mormon Fly Trap into its show. Evidently, the executive producers found an old letter written by none other than Lorenzo Snow that contains the missing construction plans of a Model Mormon Fly Trap, to wit: a Holy of Holies. The letter also includes a revelation of how flies are naturally polygamous, and that it’s an eternal principal that must never be changed.

    Comment by Hunter — March 16, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  6. Not off-putting at all. We live in semi-rural Colorado, and our nextdoor neighbor has a large and varied collection of livestock. As such, we deal with lots of flies for much of the year. The summer before last, I decide to grind my own hamburger for a BBQ, and before I was done, there were hundreds of flies collecting on our large plate glass windows facing the deck from the kitchen. Ack! I haven’t tried to grind my own hamburger since.

    Beyond that, it’s a good reminder of how different the “good old days” were. We take an awful lot for granted nowadays (insert curmudgeonly grumble). ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — March 16, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  7. Actually, isn’t the fly trap an effective analogy for Big Love?

    Comment by Rick — March 16, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  8. Great diversionary post. I have often contemplated the simple body odor that must have been present on the “pioneer” but have never thought of the general odor that was present in everyday living, or their surroundings. It sounds like it was a literal fly breeding ground! I agree with #3, the fly trap is far more interesting.

    Comment by Inthedoghouse — March 16, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  9. Inthedoghourse: You’ve contemplated pioneer body oder? You need some hobbies. :-)

    Wouldn’t using fish heads contribute to the overall stench of city life?

    Comment by Steve C. — March 16, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  10. #1 Not a strange post at all–thanks! Although I will say that I thought it was going to be about the trap of “trying too hard to be a model Mormon,” not a model Mormon trap. :)

    Comment by Bro. Jones — March 16, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  11. This is MUCH better than that other conversation, Ardis.

    I was raised in a small town in rural Utah. I had a friend whose family had an outhouse next to their house – and I wish I could have shared this article with them. Seriously.

    I also want to make sure everyone knows that I’ve never contemplated pioneer body odor, much less “often”. :)

    Comment by Ray — March 16, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

  12. That’s ’cause you have TOO MANY hobbies, Ray. (T&S, and BCC, and Keepa, and FMH, and the Mommy blogs, and … and … and …)

    Welcome to my world, Inthedoghouse. The other Keepa’ninnies may never let you forget your contemplative subject!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 16, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  13. Ardis,

    I spent many of my summers as a child growing up working summers on my Uncle’s and Grandfather’s farm in Idaho. The Model Mormon Flytrap was still used commonly there through the 60’s. Not less than 50 yards from the house were the milking stables and holding corral for about 45 dairy cattle, and immediately across the fence line the other way was a pasture used for the horses. Flies were a constant problem, so my Uncle used to take a little pile of HBO from the corral to use as bait for the fly trap. They caught lots of flies, but never all of them.

    I think something like this was in use until my Uncle sold the farm (actually, lost it) in the 70’s.

    Comment by kevinf — March 16, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  14. Ardis, a random fact drifted up from my subconscious, to the extent that each day in New York City during the first decade or two of the 20th century, the use of horses to pull wagons and taxis contributed some 100,000 gallons of horse urine per day dumped on the streets.

    No attribution or provenance for that, so it just may be a load of HBO.

    Comment by kevinf — March 16, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  15. I wish I could remember the source for one of my own vague memories, about how Salt Lake finally buckled down to installing serious sewer systems. What I’m remembering is an article discussing how the ground under Salt Lake City had become so saturated with urine that it was starting to bubble up in puddles. No HBO.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 16, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

  16. “HBO” – Brilliant! I really hope that catches on in the Bloggernacle.

    Comment by Ray — March 16, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  17. I’ll bury this here — it’s something I want to say, but not give any publicity to.

    I’ve just spent maybe four minutes dipping into the discussions on other blogs, the discussion that we’re not having here today, and realize how utterly uninterested I am in engaging with the #&%@ — sorry, the HBO — that is being left by people who have never participated in the ‘nacle before but feel compelled to unload on the LDS blogs today. Their objections are so tiresome, so repetitious, so unoriginal; the outrage is so shopworn, so unenlightening, so artificial, and every commenter seems just So Sure that what he or she has to say is the first time it has been said and is the answer to all of Mormonism’s challenges.

    I just don’t care about those people or their concerns. At all. Not in listening to them, fighting with them, or changing their pea-brains.

    Thank you, regular readers, for allowing Keepa to be a little refuge where we can talk about what does matter. Even if some days that means flies.

    This comment is not meant to discourage anyone from asking genuine questions — one of the best off-blog discussions I’ve had has been with a pot-smoking atheist Muslim who happened by one day with some legitimate questions, phrased politely.

    Anyway, thanks for coming here, for reading and commenting and contributing your own research, and especially for keeping the generally upbeat, faithful tone that we have jointly established here. You make it possible for me to be online without having to engage that other stuff. I’m tired of that other stuff.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 16, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  18. My grandfather told me about the days when, before the WOW became mandatory, he and his friends would get HBO-faced on the weekends and go around kicking over the neighbors’ fly traps. He said by far the most effective HBO to use in the fly traps was horse HBO, but bull HBO was a close second. He said one Saturday night one of his buddies, a real HBO-for-brains who didn’t know HBO from Shine-ola, kicked a fly trap so hard that his foot went right through the wooden box and got stuck in a steaming pile of HBO. He said the owner of the fly trap was awoken by the noise and came running out with a shotgun. When the teen saw him coming, he was so scared he literally HBO’d his pants.

    Comment by Andrew Ainsworth — March 16, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

  19. Niblet nomination, anyone? :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 16, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  20. Looking at the other blogs today, I’d have to say that HBO of all varieties certainly does seem to attract flies in abundance.

    Oh, and really good HBO, Andrew.

    Comment by kevinf — March 16, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

  21. #18 – Holy Crap!

    Comment by Ray — March 16, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  22. Having a whole mess of flies around wasn’t all bad.

    Every Sunday afternoon in the 1930s the Snowflake Ward sacrament meeting began at 2:00 p.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m. None of the speakers were ever asked ahead of time–so every sermon was extemporaneous. One young man who attended that ward said that one of the few things that made that two-hour-long meeting bearable was the challenge of catching the flies that flew in through the open windows.

    No telling what he did for entertainment during the winter.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 16, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

  23. Ok, this is too much. I haven’t seen one of these mormon-fly-trap-doo-hickies, but it sounds interesting. I wonder if they put them in the outhouses. We moved to Manti in the early 70’s and next door, still standing, was the outhouse. It was four-seater. I had never seen a four-seater before.

    Comment by Dennis — March 16, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

  24. What a delightful thread! It has brought back a rush of HBO and fly memories growing up on a farm. Flies first, HBO later:

    When my dad first had my brother and me milk the family cow we were too young to strip all four teats by ourselves, so he put me on one side and my brother on the other and gave us two teats each. With all the flies swirling around sneaking down the inside of the bucket it didn’t take long for my brother to invent a competition. Whoever squirted and drowned the most flies in the milk won (not as easy as it sounds, mind you–it took expert aim and significant skill. The rules dictated that you not only had to squirt the fly into the milk, but then had to drown it with additional laser-precision shots before you could move on to the next fly).

    The flies were, of course captured by the strainer back at the house. Mom held many inquisitions into the alarming number of dead flies in the strainer. We never told about our competition, but we could have simply called it our own version of the Mormon-Fly Trap.

    Got milk?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — March 16, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

  25. #24 – Wow, that brings back memories – and I had to fight the urge to use a pun there, Ardis.

    You’re welcome. :)

    Comment by Ray — March 16, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  26. #24: Mom held many inquisitions into the alarming number of dead flies in the strainer.

    Yeah, I’ll bet she did. And she probably had a pretty good idea that some active force was at work; it’s just that being female, it probably never occurred to her that someone (you two) would deliberately drown flies in milk that they would later drink themselves.

    There are differences between the sexes . . .

    Comment by bfwebster — March 17, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  27. There are differences between the sexes . . .

    Truer words were never spoken.

    Comment by Ray — March 17, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

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