Category Archives: fleas

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.

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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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Fleas and Other Itches — ‘Tis Still the Season (Part Two)

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.

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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.

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Spread from Q-W Handbook for Dog Lovers (Q-W Laboratories, Bound Brook, New Jersey, n.d.) was offered as a free handout by stores carrying the company’s products in the 1920s.  Drug stores were important outlets for proprietary veterinary medicines; this particular copy of the book bears the stamp “McCUE & BUSS DRUG CO. 14 S. Main ST Janesville, Wisconsin.”

 

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Q-W Dog Soap, Q-W Laboratories, Plainfield, New Jersey, 1930s. The unused soap is still in this package.

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.

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Trade card for Little’s Soluble Phenyle and Soap, no date (probably 1890s).

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.

Mechling's Flea Powder

Mechling’s Flea Powder, Camden, New Jersey, after 1922.  Mechling Bros. Chemical Company was incorporated that year and sometime in the 1930s became part of General Chemical Company, one of the five who organized Allied Chemical Corporation.

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Lowe’s Flea Powder. Edward Lowe C0mpany, 1960s.

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.

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