Swatting Flies for Health: Children and Tuberculosis in Early Twentieth-Century Montreal

Article excerpt

Responding to an appeal by city physicians and health reformers to destroy a prodigious disease carrier, the housefly, the Montreal Daily Star launched an island-wide contest in July 1912, offering prizes to children who collected the most dead flies. Nearly a thousand children, largely from working-class families, participated in a three-week-long "Swat the Fly" competition. Engaging Montreal children in this contest underscores a popular idea at the time that the best way to improve public health and combat the ignorance of a generation was to arm a new one with knowledge. While historians recognize that children's participation in campaigns to promote public health measures was pivotal to their success, youngsters are often rendered as passive recipients of reformers' efforts. We argue the contrary: children were active agents in public health crusades both as consumers and as advocates.

En juillet 1912, le journal Montreal Daily Star repondait a l'appel lance par des medecins de la ville et des reformateurs urbains et annoncait le concours <> (Chasse a la mouche) dans toute la ville afin d'eliminer une terrible porteuse de maladie: la mouche. Les enfants qui rapportaient le plus de mouches mortes recevaient une recompense. Ainsi, presque mille enfants, principalement de families de la classe ouvriere, s'inscrivirent a cette competition qui dura trois semaines. Inciter des enfants montrealais a participer a ce concours faisait echo a une idee tres repandue a cette epoque, idee selon laquelle le meilleur moyen d'ameliorer la sante publique et de combattre l'ignorance d'une generation etait d'armer la suivante de connaissances. Tandis que la plupart des historiens/iennes reconnaissent que le succes des campagnes de promotion de mesures de sante publique reposait sur la participation des enfants, les jeunes restaient neanmoins souvent depeints comme des beneficiaires passifs des efforts menes par les reformateurs. Cet article demontre qu'au contraire, les enfants etaient des agents actifs dans les croisades de sante publique d lafois en tant que consommateurs et defenseurs.

Introduction

Responding to an appeal by city physicians and sanatoria to destroy a prodigious disease carrier, the housefly, the Montreal Daily Star launched an island-wide contest in July 1912, offering $350 in prizes to children who collected the most dead flies. First prize was $25, a princely sum for most households. Nearly a thousand children, largely from working-class families, participated in the three-weeklong "Swat the Fly" competition. As sponsor, the newspaper diligently covered the event, publishing participants' photographs, keeping running tabs of the amounts collected, reminding contestants that there were "Lots of Flies So Do Not Get Discouraged," (2) and providing instructions on the most efficient method to hunt flies with traps and fly swatters. Altogether, Montreal children collected more than 25 million flies. The Star was self-congratulatory; not only had Montreal contestants "learned a valuable lesson in hygiene" but they handily trounced thirty other North American cities that offered similar contests. Children elsewhere, it would seem, did not have the same exuberance for fly swatting: in Toronto, they managed to kill fewer than 1.5 million flies; in Washington, 7 million. (3) But then, no other city on the continent had been referred to as the "Calcutta of the West."

Montreal had an abysmal infant mortality rate as well as an extraordinary level of childhood morbidity and mortality owing to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Engaging children in anti-tuberculosis campaigns with contests such as "Swat the Fly" underscores a popular idea at the time that the best way to improve public health and combat the ignorance of a generation was to arm a new one with knowledge. "Children have no prejudices," a member of the Publication Committee of the Montreal League for the Prevention of Tuberculosis asserted, "and remember the hygienic training received in their youth all their life. …