Killing Flies in the 19th Century

Bzzzzzz fly5

Annoying, isn’t it. Bzzzzz. That thing has probably been walking on dog poo and it’s now flying around your head. The buzzing stops and now it is walking around the rim of your Victorian tea cup.

If only there was a way to get rid of flies. Oh but there is…

First of all, you need to protect your food. You don’t want them walking their six dog-poo boots all over your fresh meat (refrigerators have yet to be invented).

flySo here is what the Victorians recommended for keeping flies off meat:

Dust meat with pepper or powdered ginger.

Run out of pepper or ginger? In that case, fasten meat to a piece of paper on which camphor has been well rubbed. No camphor? Not a problem, use creosote (seriously). Flies don’t like creosote (neither do I, it makes your meat taste like garden fence). Borax is also used as a preservative and disinfectant.

So, that’s the meat fly-proofed. Now we need to destroy the fly (according to “Consult Me” the Victorians didn’t kill flies, they destroyed them).

My Victorian instruction manual has a really simple way of DESTROYING flies. A teaspoonful of laudanum and two tablespoons of water, strongly sweetened with sugar and placed in a saucer. Probably better to avoid this strategy if you have a cat. Laudanum (also known as opium tincture) contains morphine.

Safer for your cat is the following fly-destroying technique:

Ground black pepper and sugar, diluted in milk and put on saucers.

It won’t kill (or destroy) your cat but your cat will probably hate you for spoiling a saucer of milk in such a way. My cat (Cluedo) likes curry, so a little black pepper and sugar in milk won’t bother him in the slightest – which means the saucer isn’t going to stay full for long. Laudanum it is then.

If you can get the fly to sit still, you could try this ingenious technique:

Dip a feather in a little sweet oil and touch the fly with it, between their wings. This renders their breathing impossible.

Of course, if you can get the fly to sit still long enough to touch it between the wings, a rolled up newspaper is probably going to be quicker. Apparently this technique works on wasps as well – but get it wrong and they will fight back.

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About Jasen Quick

Author, historian, tutor.
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