Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger, Ashley Bowen, PhD. Dr. Bowen is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and the Digital Engagement Manager at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. She is the guest curator of NLM’s exhibition, Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America.
Mosquitoes, those irritating visitors to the backyard and itchy interlopers at the summer fireworks display, threatened the American way of life. At least, that’s what mosquito control boards wanted people to believe in the early 20th century. Their education materials reminded people that mosquitoes were more than an annoyance, they “stole time” and “stole life” by spreading diseases like yellow fever, malaria, and dengue fever. Everyone, including children and stay at home moms, had a role to play in protecting their home from the mosquito menace.
Two different mosquito control education materials, issued almost 20 years apart, highlight how efforts to control mosquitoes focused as much on health and the environment as on the middle-class household. Officials at the local and federal level focused on the careless homeowner as the weak link in mosquito protection and prepared children to be careful about their home’s environment.
The Board of Trustees of the Sanitary District of Chicago issued Mosquito Facts for Mosquito Fighters in 1926. They intended that “the boys and girls of Cook County” would take up the information in this pamphlet and make an effort to control mosquitoes at their home and in their neighborhood. The pamphlet opens with an overview of the mosquito’s lifecycle, in the style of a schoolbook, and then explains how mosquitoes can “cause nations to decay.” America’s ability to control the mosquito in Panama, Cuba, and elsewhere was a victory for human health and the nation.
Despite the pamphlet’s focus on the global consequences of mosquitoes, it assures readers that local action can prevent this “national decay.” Lesson 10, titled “how boys and girls can help,” explains that most mosquitoes are born in suburban areas. The booklet then offers several examples of actions children can take. Mosquito Facts for Mosquito Fighters explicitly connected the mosquito fighting work to efforts to prepare children for middle class homeownership. In a short write up of the efforts of the Boy Scouts, the authors of the pamphlet praised the effectiveness of their work and celebrated it because, “as homeowners of tomorrow,” their vigilance will pay dividends decades into the future.
Nineteen years later, in 1945, the United States Public Health Service produced a short film documenting a successful mosquito control campaign in Tampa, Florida. It’s Up to You: Dengue-Yellow Fever Control highlights the importance of instructing the “cooperative housewife” who may not know that mosquitoes can breed in her potted plants or in the rubbish collecting water in her backyard. Tampa dispatched Boy Scouts to instruct women on mosquito control across the city—as the film’s narrator says, “another house, another boy scout, another housewife”—as well as to empty discarded tires full of standing water and other manual labor.
Both Mosquito Facts for Mosquito Fighters and It’s Up To You described a variety of methods to engage local residents, including outreach via newspaper and radio broadcasting, but highlighted the value of engaging children through educational programs, scouting groups, and sporting groups (like the Chicago-area golf clubs). Though the film is less explicit about connecting kids’ mosquito control efforts to preparing children for homeownership and middle-class life, it celebrated the responsible homeowner who earned a merit award for mosquito control efforts. Each item promotes a specific view of American culture, one based on ownership of a middle-class, single family home.
Both items are available to view in the digital gallery for the exhibition Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America. The digital gallery extends the story of yellow fever in the United States into the era after Walter Reed confirmed that mosquitoes spread yellow fever. In the 20th century, Americans tried many different things to control mosquito populations—from changing the landscape to chemical insecticides. You can learn about all these efforts in the exhibition’s digital gallery.
To learn more about yellow fever in the period before Walter Reed confirmed the disease is spread by mosquitoes, read an interview with Ashley Bowen. Also check out Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America.