Now that we’re entering flea season, it’s a good time to discuss what pet owners in the past did about these pests. First, I have to stipulate that almost all people – poor or prosperous, city dweller or farmer — experienced the discomfort of insect bites, including kinds that we find horribly embarrassing today. Housekeepers battled bedbugs that were carried home from travel; mosquitoes and biting flies that took advantage of unscreened windows; head lice; mites from backyard chicken flocks; and the fleas that every fur-covered animal suffered with during the warm months.
This uncomfortable reality meant that folks were likely to try to limit their exposure to fleas by housing pet animals outdoors during the warm months (although there is plenty of evidence that they still found their way indoors then, too). Without modern flea-killing chemicals, conscientious housekeeping and hygiene was the first line of defense. Bathing and flea-combing (through the hair of both pets and people) were the most common methods of killing the pests. Fine toothed combs, which are still available in pet stores today, help owners lift fleas from the animal’s skin, to be crushed or drowned in a cup of soapy water. Bathing animals with household lye soaps killed fleas but dried out and even burned the skin of dogs and cats.
This trade card advertises an important innovation in treating fleas on pets. By the 1870s, a new type of soap was marked for medicinal use on both people and animals. Carbolic soap, which contained phenyl derived from coal tar, was excellent for killing fleas; it also helped to treat other kinds of itches such as follicular mange. In the picture a group of willing pets await their baths. One dog is even begging for his turn in the suds. No one in my household behaves like this at bath time, but the point was to suggest that carbolic soap offered welcome relief.