Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Whys of Flies

The Whys of Flies

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 08, 2013

Keepa’s view of Mormon history is so broad that we’ve discussed flies, and more flies, and constipation, and still more flies. So I have an idea – why don’t we talk about flies again?!

From the Young Woman’s Journal, 1914 –

The Whys of Flies

By Elizabeth Cook, of the Salt Lake Health Department

Providence, for a very long time, has carried many of the burdens humanity should have borne.

Twenty-five years ago, even less, when our children succumbed to the diseases of childhood, we said it was a dispensation of Providence, “the little dears were too spiritual to need the ordeals of earthly life, so the Father took them home.”

Only the other day a woman, in pouring out her life sorrows to me, took the same attitude, her children having died one after the other in early childhood, “Providence saw fit to take them,” she said.

But parenthood is gaining in wisdom. It has at last been proven to us that the Providence which took so many of our children was the product of our own filth, and what we now call insanitary living. it is hard to place the fly in this same category. We still cling to the God-made fly; to the idea that he can never be eliminated. Science, however, is forcing us to digest the fact that he is our own in sanitary curse coming home to roost; that he is man-made, there incarnation of our own filth; that we provide everything for his sustenance, in fact, often eat at the second table.

Not only is it necessary that we know him as the product of our uncleanness, but we must realize his share in the appalling mortality of the race in the past, his present and future pestilential possibilities.

A frequent expression of feeling among the people I meet in my daily life at the city’s business is, “that we used to be healthier and live longer before any sanitary measures were thought of.”

Now listen, for my answer to such assertions is certainly convincing enough! Who lived at all? Who lived longer? Who were healthier? Why, the people sturdy enough to stand up against the lack of intelligent care and sanitation in early childhood. They were the survivors. The rest all died.

Ask your grandmothers and great grandmothers how many of the children they bore died and how many lived. It’s not so very long ago that fifty per cent of them died before they were ten years old. Now, in the infancy of hygiene and sanitation, we have only a fifteen per cent child mortality, is that not convincing? Thirty-five per cent more children given a chance at life.

But, these chance acquaintances complain, there never were so many sickly, unhealthy people in the world! Probably not. That is partly due to the thirty-five per cent of delicate babies who, through wiser care, have been able to remain in the world. It’s that thirty-five per cent of weaklings that pulls the wool over our eyes.

The fly has had a prodigious share in all this waste, and while we are grasping facts of sanitation we cannot elude him or allow him to elude us. He is the great filth distributing factor. Is it difficult to realize this when we concede that the bees fertilize almost all plant life by carrying sufficient pollen on their bodies as they fly from tree to tree, and stalk to stalk?

At the end of each summer season all but a few flies die. These are mostly young mother flies that find warm hiding places and sleep through the winter months. As the spring days grow pleasant the starving pest creeps out in search of food. She feeds diligently for twelve days, then seeks a breeding place, preferably a manure pile, though any rotting vegetable or animal matter will do. She lays 120 to150 eggs; these hatching into maggots in eight hours or more, according to the heat or cold. The maggot stage exists from six to eight days, while they feed on filth and grow rapidly fat. The pupae, or next stage, lasts for three or four days, during which the maggots develop a hard covering. The fly then comes forth fully developed to begin laying its batch of 120 or so eggs, within fourteen days. Under the most favorable circumstances, all progeny living, if Darwin’s law of the “survival of the fittest,” and the struggle for existence were nil, one pair of flies starting in the spring, could be responsible for 191,010,000,000,000,000,000 flies. Enough to bury the entire earth 47 feet deep. But under existing circumstances a pair of flies produces only 125,000,000 or so in a season.

Some people still contend they are harmless scavengers. That they are scavengers no one doubts, but while they will crawl over and eat anything filthy, they also have a love for the delicate and delicious foods of man, flying from the manure pile or open privy vault to the milk or freshly iced cake with equal zest. I remember coal-oiling two angel food cakes last summer, each of which, through the magnifying glass showed no less than seventy-five still wet fly specks that ordinarily would have attracted no attention. These cakes had been left a short time on top of a showcase in a store.

A fly eats about one-half his bulk at a meal, and specks every three or four minutes. Owing to his weak digestion, much of the food which passes through him is unaffected by this process, and germs of tuberculosis or typhoid are found in perfectly normal condition in the excreta. In fact the name “typhoid fly” will soon become the one by which he is known.

The footpads which hold him to the ceiling are not of the vacuum order, as we used to think, but are covered with minute hairs, and exude a sticky substance acting as a glue with which to fasten himself to objects. This glue, though helpful in sustaining him in the most perilous positions, has its discouraging features for the fly, as he is continually accumulating a choice assortment of foreign matter on his feet, as well as under his wings where the sticky hairs are also found. That’s the reason he wrings his hands and wipes his feet and cleans his wings wherever he lights an instant.

It is estimated that thirty-five per cent of typhoid comes from the distributing agent, the fly. He scatters samples of tuberculous germs freely among us. By making his toilet on our fruit, he causes most of the bowel trouble of summer, formerly laid at the door of the innocent fruit itself.

A fly drops into the baby’s milk, and cholera infantum may result. One time I saw a baby lying in its cart out of doors in the country. On its little, white, bald head were a number of tiny globules of blood, and flies that looked like ordinary house flies were annoying the little, unprotected dome and face. I wondered whether a common house fly would bite, provided the victim were at its mercy as was this blue-eyed innocent. It was not till long after that I learned it is the stable fly, looking very much like the housefly, that bites, and that its bite is credited by some authorities with carrying infantile paralysis.

“The fly,”says Dr. Woods Hutchinson, “is infinitely the most dangerous animal that walks. “In the Spanish-American war he killed five times as many men as did bullets.”

Utah has allowed $30,000 for the destruction of coyotes, which live mostly on jackrabbits and mice. Why not have a fund for the destruction of flies?

There’s the gulf stream, a mighty current some fifty miles wide and three thousand feet deep, forcing a rapid, clean pathway through the Atlantic ocean for thousands of miles. We talk with complacency of changing the course of this current. Why shouldn’t we tackle the fly?

One day, in the spring of 1911, the civic biological class of the Cleveland Normal School was discussing the fly problem. One young girl put this simple question: “If the fly is so dangerous to health, why don’t we get rid of it?” This was the magic question which started the whole community into action. The class got busy, studied the different methods advocated, selected what they thought the most plausible, and it was worked out so successfully that interested businessmen of that city, after it had been carried out two seasons, declared Cleveland had been benefitted to the extent of $2,000,000 by its fly campaign.

In Salt Lake we have already launched a campaign based on that of Cleveland, and hope to have a rousing good time at it.

The plan came from the brain of the eminent entomologist, Professor Hodge, of Clark University. Professor Hodge says: “We must go outdoors to fight the fly.” Of what real protection is a home, the interior of which is free from flies, when all our food and drink is contaminated by them, when, as soon as we step out they are on us, and our children are their prey.”

He is responsible for the statement that one pair of flies produce 125,000,000 in a season. His idea is to kill the first flies, if possible, during the twelve or fourteen days after coming out of winter quarters, while they are feeding up, and before they have laid their first eggs. This slaughter should begin in March.

Through the co-operation of the city Board of Health, the sanitation committee of the Commercial Club, and the women’s clubs, with the Commercial Club at the helm, we hope to carry out the following plans:

Beginning with themiddleofMarchandcontinuingtoJune15th, the city health department will give a bounty often cents a hundred for flies, through the balance of the summer, fifteen cents a pint.

The sanitation committee of the Commercial Club will furnish fly traps to the children at wholesale prices, which they in turn can sell at a profit. The trap adopted is one which can be used on the lid of garbage can or by itself.

Not satisfied with two such incentives to commercialism, prizes will be offered for the greatest number of flies captured by single individuals, and the summer will probably windup with a banquet at the Commercial Club to the fifty prize winners.

All this stirring propaganda must, of course, be supplemented by publicity of every sort, moving pictures, talks, newspaper articles, and general activity along this line ,and by the hearty co-operation of the people throughout the city, the greatest vigilance as to yards, garbage disposal and care of manure.

For rural districts the manure disposal might be a simple thing indeed, for by immediately spreading manure over the fields, the chances of fly breeding become a negligible matter.

Then chloride of lime used about the stable, the back yards and garbage cans makes breeding places hard to find, though some sort of outside trap should be used by every one.

We must remember, also, that when our foods are exposed, even for a short time, to flies, they are covered with invisible excreta and foot wiping of numbers of flies, which always carry the filth germs producing summer intestinal disturbances, and generally death-dealing ones.

In buying, we should never forget this fact, and deal only with merchants who properly protect their foodstuffs. By withdrawing patronage from the careless dealer, the fly campaign is further stimulated, as he in turn will look about him for the cause of so many flies, and insist on their breeding places being cleaned up.

I feel that if such a campaign fails it will be because of the residents who say they need no traps because they have no flies. But it will not fail.



  1. The same Google search for Primary song lyrics that led me to your wonderful blog (thank you, Google!) led me to an online pdf copy of the 1919 Hand Book for the Bee Hive Girls, where I was interested to see that killing 25 flies per day for two weeks was one of the project choices to earn the Housekeeping cell. Now I see why. But some of the other requirements, though charming, are puzzling to me. An example: for each achievement level, a mandatory requirement for advancement was “Sleep out of doors or with wide open windows for two months.” – (?)

    Comment by Marilyn O. — February 8, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  2. My sons like to gross out their older sister with talk of how flies eat. This will add more to their repertoire.

    Comment by mahana — February 8, 2013 @ 9:27 am

  3. Marilyn, the Church seemed to emphasize physical health a lot more in the early 20th century than we hear now. I very often see references in the magazines, and even in Conference talks, about the health value of fresh air. Some people bragged, for instance, about sleeping with their bedroom windows open even in winter, or about putting a cot in their orchard and sleeping outdoors all summer. I think that is what this requirement is getting at: it’s equivalent to saying “eat whole wheat bread for two months” or “walk three miles a day for two months” or any other habit that was conducive to good health.

    It’s fun to see those different emphases, isn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2013 @ 9:36 am

  4. Oh, and mahana, tell your boys they’re welcome. I like to hear that Keepa is having an effect on the daily life of some Saints. 🙂

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2013 @ 9:36 am

  5. Why didn’t they just invent DDT? 🙂

    There aren’t many flies in New York City. Too tough for them here, I suppose.

    And, it’s too bad that the writer didn’t learn some mathematics along the way. The number of babies who survived may indeed have risen 35 percentage points, but the increase from 50% to 85% is a 70% increase in the number of surviving infants. (Assume 100 infants, 50 of whom died in the olden days. But now only 15 of that group of 100 die. Thus, the number of survivors increases from 50 to 85. 35 is 70% of 50. QED.)

    Comment by Mark B. — February 8, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

  6. I remember coal-oiling two angel food cakes last summer

    She what??

    My only (second-hand) memories of coal oil are that nobody in Snowflake, Arizona, in the 1930s seemed able to say the words without getting confused and saying “coil oil.” But I can’t imagine doing anything called “coal-oiling” to a cake and then wanting to eat it, flyspecked or not.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 8, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  7. The coal oil sounds more deadly than the flies. Maybe that’s why almost no one who read this article when it was published is still alive. 😛

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

  8. I’m waiting for someone to come explain that coal oil was used to detect flyspecks on frosting. Or a new way to have cake flambe.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 8, 2013 @ 2:40 pm