On 10 May 2014, I published a post about the problem of fleas on household pets and the various ways people tried to treat this problem in the late 1800s. I discussed the flea comb (used on people as well as pet animals) and introduced the early flea soaps, which were based on carbolic acid’s vermin-killing and disinfecting qualities. I also promised to write more on the topic. It’s taken me some time, but the flea season is continuing very late here in Delaware and on the Delmarva Peninsula — and I am inspired by the flea treatments I’m still having to use on Teddy and Stump. So let’s continue the story.
In 1912, this comic postcard was in circulation, but it reflected a real problem: controlling fleas on dogs, cats and people, too. Until the flea collar with its time-release insecticide was developed in the 1960s, pet owners still had to remove fleas by hand or go after them with soaps or chemicals that killed them on contact. The Q-W Laboratories, founded by the French immigrant kennel-owner Henri Vibert around 1920, offered an array of remedies for dogs. This advertising from the Q-W Handbook for Dog Lovers, published in the 1920s, offered dog soap, flea powder (which was also good for cockroaches and bedbugs) and Q-W Flea Oil and Coat Grower.
This Q-W dog soap from the 1930s contained Beta Naphthol. Naphthol (or napthol) soaps were in common use for household laundry until the development of modern powdered detergents; I still use Fels Naptha to dry out poison ivy blisters! This was considered a good alternative to the old standby carbolic acid (which was also poisonous to people and pets unless well-diluted in the soap). Here is an earlier trade card for a carbolic-acid soap, which was also recommended for disinfecting kennels.
Another type of soap promoted to kill fleas and relieve mange was used creosol, which still appears in “tar soaps” used for severe dandruff. Q-W Laboratories also offered one of these, and even added sulphur to the mix.
While flea-killing soaps were in wide use well into the 1960s, pet owners who were unwilling or unable to struggle with their dogs in the bath turned increasingly to powders. Cage bird owners had been using one insecticide,”Persian powder,” for decades. Also known as pyrethrin, derived from a particular chrysanthemum plant, it became an ingredient of flea powders for dogs in the early 1900s. It was poisonous to cats, however. If they licked enough of the powder off their fur and skin, it had neurotoxic effects.
By the 1920s, flea powders, along with “dry bath” products, included another ingredient, rotenone, that could be used on both cats and dogs. Rotenone is also plant-derived and is still used by gardeners today as an alternative to synthetic pesticides. Mechling’s Flea Powder, seen below, was produced by a company in Camden, New Jersey, that seems to have specialized in agricultural chemicals. Flea powder was a small sideline — it wasn’t that hard to mix rotenone and inert powders together and package them for sale at a high markup — and this product probably had a regional market.
When Edward Lowe, the man who created a national market for cat-box filler with his trademarked “Kitty Litter,” expanded his product line to include other products for cats in the early 1960s, he included this flea powder, which relied on rotenone but did contain a small amount of pyrethrins. What’s important about this powder is that it seems to be one of the first marketed “especially for cats.”
Flea powders had other problems, too. I recall my mother struggling to powder the family cat. Powder flew everywhere. I’ll introduce other options for treating fleas on pets in a future post.