Tag Archives: pet inventions

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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The Kum-Pet Dog and Cat Feeder, 1947

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Kum-Pet Dog and Cat Feeder. Brooklyn, New York. Lorraine Metal Specialties Company, a division of Lorraine Lighting Products Co, late 1940s.

The Kum-Pet Dog and Cat Feeder is one of several automatic pet feeders in my collection.  Its mechanism is simple.  A wind-up alarm clock, mounted flush into a galvanized metal frame, is set with the time for the pet’s meal.  When mealtime is reached, the tension unwinding spring that operates the clock’s alarm also spins a metal spool that winds up a string.  The string is attached to the underside of the metal feeding dish under the cover, kept in place by a cut-out in the metal base.  The pan of food slides into view and — voilá! — dinner is served.

Like the V.I.P. Pet Brush, the subject of my very first blog post, the Kum-Pet Dog and Cat Feeder is a gadget from the “Populuxe” era, when peace and increasing prosperity led Americans to some giddy purchasing decisions.  In the decades after World War II, people with extra money to spend began to direct some of this cash toward all sorts of  powered kitchen gizmos including ice crushers and blenders, electric carving knives, meat grinders and mixers.  Some gadgets were supposed to help housewives save money by taking on tasks as home, while others were intended to make routine tasks easier.  Others, such as automatic pet feeders, responded to consumer interest in convenience, suggesting that even the most ordinary tasks could be enhanced by novel applications of simple technologies.

As part of the family, pets became proxy consumers in postwar America.  The expanding array of products intended to nourish, heal, house, entertain and ornament them suggests how ordinary people understood and accommodated the needs of their charges.  In this case, automatic feeders were promoted as improving the lives of both pets and their people.  Timed feeders allowed the designated caregiver to be away from home when it was dinnertime for Trixie or Pal, who could still expect grub to arrive at the usual time.

The Kum-Pet feeder received its patent as a “Feeding Device for Animals” on 25 February 1947.  This seems to be the only patent issued to Jerome Frankel, who I have been unable to track so far. Several men with this name lived in and around New York City at the time the Kum-Pet Feeder was offered  for sale.  The patent’s text suggests that the invention responded to problems with some existing feeders:”One of the objects of the invention is to provide an automatic feeder of simple construction having few parts which can be cheaply produced and assembled….of neat and attractive appearance, and which will be fool-proof and positive in operation…sanitary and easily cleaned.”  The food pan in the Kum-Pet is an 8-inch metal baking pan, and the alarm clock is a Gilbert.  The William L. Gilbert Clock Corporation had been in business since 1828 and was known for its alarm clocks at the time the feeder was made by Lorraine Metal Specialties Company of Brooklyn, new York.

Farmers had been interested in automatic feeders for livestock for several decades when the Kum-Pet was patented.  However, the first patented feeder that I have been able to find relating specifically for pets is a “Time Controlled Feeding Device for Domestic Pets (US 2157682), patented by Raymond V. Sweeny in 1939.  Notice that this one also makes use of an alarm clock!  At least five applications for automatic pet feeders appeared between 1946 and 1966. The timing of automatic pet feeders is congruent with wide consumer acceptance of packaged pet food, another convenience for busy households.

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R. V. Sweeney, “Time Controlled Feeding Device for Domestic Pets,” U.S. Patent 2,157,682. Patented 1939.

 

 

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