Monthly Archives: June 2017

Fleas and Other Itches, Part III: The Comb-A-Flea Atomizer, 1950

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Counter-top display, Comb-A-Flea atomizer, Comb-A-Flea Company, Seattle, Washington, between 1950 and 1952.

Flea season is back upon us, and pet owners everywhere are emptying their wallets for those expensive, but very effective, topical monthly treatments.  There is also a thriving online community of pet owners who share less expensive and chemical free approaches to managing fleas, from feeding dogs brewers yeast and garlic to spraying pets and their beds with solutions made from the herb pennyroyal.

I’ve written a couple of posts on “Fleas and Other Itches” (10 May 2014 and 5 October 2016).  These will give you background on the traditional use of flea combs, which I still use to check whether my pets are showing evidence of infestation despite my best efforts, and on the origins of commercial flea powders.

This entry focuses on the “Comb-A-Flea Atomizer,” a patented novelty that attempted combine the traditional flea comb with an atomizer that delivered powder close to the skin of the cat or dog.  My collection includes this unused counter-top display of ten Comb-A-Flea Atomizers. The comb head of each is carefully sealed in cellophane and contains a small instructional pamphlet.  The head of the comb is plastic; the bulb appears to be rubber and the material has become too stiff to squeeze.

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Detail, Comb-A-Flea atomizers in their display package.

The Comb-a-Flea Atomizer was patented in 1952 by John L. Sullivan, who assigned it to the Comb-A-Flea Company of Seattle, Washington.   Here is the drawing for his patent. The cutaway diagram shows how the powder was pushed up the neck of the comb when the pet owner squeezed the bulb.  Comb A Flea 2017-06-24 at 9.56.49 PM

It took almost three years between this application and the issuing of the patent, and around the same time, several other people also applied for patents for combs that dispensed flea powder.  Here is another patent drawing for an “Insecticide Comb-Applicator,” which was actually received two years before the Comb-A-Flea applicator.

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I have no idea why this kind of insecticide applicator became a topic of interest by more than one inventor, and so far I can find no evidence of contact among the inventors, or lawsuits about patent infringement.  This may just be one of those things — several minds facing the same problem and coming up with similar solutions.  One thing that almost certainly made the Comb-a-Flea possible is the proliferation of plastics after World War II.  Molding a hollow comb with a little hole at the base of each tooth was easy with plastics.

Each Comb-A-Flea came with an instruction pamphlet, and I was able to work one of them out without damaging the cellophane cover.

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Instructional brochure for Comb-A-Flea applicator. Front side, unfolded.

Pets Blog 29 June 2017

Instructional brochure for Comb-A-Flea applicator, reverse side.

The Comb-A-Flea suggests a couple of interesting things to think about.  First, it is one example of the sudden increase in products for pet keepers in the two decades following World War II.  Examining magazines like All-Pets, which was aimed at pet-shop owners and wholesalers, suggests that small companies, perhaps associated with other post-war novelty businesses, pumped out many novelties intended to improve the experience of owning dogs, cats, parakeets and other creatures.   (I’ll discuss the novelties associated with the 1950s craze for keeping parakeets in another post.)  The Comb-A-Flea was intended to be convenient, a sales pitch used for many kinds of household goods at the time. This was because it combined grooming the animal AND treating it for flea, ticks and lice with one implement.  If you go back and read the instructions, however, you’ll see that the applicator wasn’t really any easier to use than a comb and a shaker of flea powder.  For one thing, the text suggests that it clearly had problems with clogging.

Second, the Comb-A-Flea did NOT make use of DDT, the toxic but ubiquitous insecticide that was introduced into many household products including flea powders. Pulvex, which made a line of over-the-counter remedies for dogs, introduced DDT into its flea powder as early as 1946.  The Comb-A-Flea powder contained Pyrethrins, Rotenone and Piperonyl, all of which had been around for a while and which are still in use in garden sprays and, in the case of a variant of Piperonyl, lice shampoos. Notice that the Comb-A-Flea brochure makes a point of assuring pet owners that the insecticidal powder is safe, and that it has been approved by veterinarians and dog breeders.

The Seattle-based Comb-A-Flea Company didn’t last long, and I haven’t yet been able to learn anything about it.  In 1951, the “Atomizing Comb-A-Flea” did appear in advertisements in a few East Coast newspapers;  here is a 1951 ad from Gimbel’s in Philadelphia. But the company seems to have been gone by 1953.

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Advertisement for Comb-A-Flea Atomizer, Philadelphia Inquirer 19 August 1951. The pet department of the Comb-A-Flea

The next innovation in flea control for pets, was the invention of the flea collar, a thick plastic strip impregnated with a flea-killing chemical.  I’ll discuss this, along with the use of DDT in flea powders, in a future post.  In the meantime, we might think about the balancing act in which we pet owners engage as we struggle between the desire for relief  (for both our animals and ourselves) from biting insects and the potential dangers  of prolonged intimate contact with potentially toxic chemicals.

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We Will All Be at the Cat Show!

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Trade card for G.B. Bunnell’s cat show, chromolithograph, printed by Sefford (?), Boston & New York, 1881.

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A while back I was able to purchase this trade card, which intrigued me because it was an early advertisement for a cat show.  I had never seen a trade card or broadside for a nineteenth-century cat show, and I decided that I needed to learn who G. B. Bunnell was, and when and why he held one.

“Exhibitions” or “Congresses” of cats, dogs and other small animals were a sideline of the for-profit museums that dotted American cities in the nineteenth century.  The most famous of these, of course, is P.T. Barnham’s American Museum, which burned in 1865.  In 1863, Barnum held, and promoted the dickens out of, the “Great National Dog Show,” which offered cash prizes.  After that, dog shows popped up in many settings, including local agricultural fairs (where dogs were shown alongside fancy poultry) and the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  By the 1880s dog breeding was organized through kennel clubs, the most important being the American Kennel Club (1884).  Dog enthusiasts quickly established breeding registries and standards for judging;  they imported dogs from Europe and even created new breeds of dogs such as the Boston Terrier.

Cat shows were another beast entirely.  By the early 1870s, newspapers reported on cat shows in Great Britain, which probably encouraged the organization of American events.  However, cats did not (and still don’t) come in a large variety of distinctive breeds.  Reportage on cat shows in the late nineteenth century reveals that they were mainly an attraction created by for-profit museums or charitable groups as fundraisers.  As I was tracking Mr. Bunnell, I found this brief article on a cat show in Philadelphia, printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 30 November 1877: “Philadelphia is enjoying a cat show.  The exhibition is being held at the Museum [another for-profit attraction], and the display is varied.  The competition is principally as to weight and age, and the largest weighing from fourteen to thirty pounds.  The ages of some run up to twenty years, and there are animals two yards long.”  That’s the entire article. It does suggest that some Americans were already feeding their cats much too much, however.  Shortly thereafter, the Daily Eagle reported bad news about a cat show at the American Museum in the Bowery: “There was nothing about any of them [the cats, that is] that particularly excited attention.”  G. B. Bunnell was the operator of this attraction, and this was his first run at showing cats.

By 1878, the Daily Eagle began to report on cat shows in Brooklyn. A cat show at the Music Hall in January of 1878 received coverage because there was “little of note” in the “world of amusements.” The 271 cats in this display were displayed because of “their large or small size, color and condition of fur, species, deformities, and so forth.”  Some were trained to perform tricks.

In March of 1881, TWO cat shows competed for the attention of Brooklynites, and this is where my trade card comes in.  On the 13th, James Jukes, manager of “Brooklyn’s New Museum” at 424-426 Fulton Street, announced the impending opening of a cat show including “some of the finest specimens of the feline species in this country.”  Jukes invited Brooklynites to enter their own pets in this display.  The next day, Jukes took out a classified advertisement announcing that his “Great Cat Show” would open on March 21.  Ten cents bought not only this display but a “pantomime of Puss in Boots”…”to amuse the children.”

Right below this ad, G. B. Bunnell advertised his “Annex” at 325 Washington Street in Brooklyn, starring “Signor Giovanni’s Performing Canaries and Musical Glasses” for a ten-cent admission.  Bunnell was apparently worried that Jukes’ “Great Cat Show” would outdraw the musical canaries, however, and on March 21, he opened his own cat show at the Annex. In fact, he imported specimens from a cat show he had opened at his Manhattan location on March 7.  That 180-animal show, which was covered by the New York Times in a very funny article on March 8, continued the “anything goes” approach to cat display:  “Tom is a tiger cat, weighing 18 pounds and valued at $150.  He…has the heavy chops and expression of untutored intelligence of a Tammany Alderman.”  The imports to the Brooklyn show were similarly various and included a couple of three-legged cats — and Tom, one hopes.

My trade card is part of the publicity for Bunnell’s recycled cat show.  It was a freebie, the kind of card that a young person would keep to put in a scrapbook along with the other chromo trade cards that puffed brands of coffee, over-the-counter medicines,sewing machines and shoe stores.

The terrific blog The Hatching Cat of NYC also discusses Bunnell’s museum and his 1881 and 1882 cat shows in more detail in this post of 28 February 2016:  Featured Felines of the Cat Congress on Broadway

 

 

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