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Is it safe to open a window?

Prior to 1870, swarms of flies and mosquitoes were best kept at bay by keeping windows closed—even in summer—or covering one or two with cheesecloth. Wooden-framed wire cloth window screens “made the difference,” promised an 1873 advertisement, “between absolute misery and sweetest comfort.”

From E.T. Barnum's Catalog of Wire Goods, 1874; despite its use of racist dialect—typical in advertising of the era—this illustration accurately depicts conditions in a house without screens.

From E.T. Barnum's Catalog of Wire Goods, 1874; despite its use of racist dialect—typical in advertising of the era—this illustration accurately depicts conditions in a house without screens.

Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 

“We are the light-hearted mosquitos. We carry the fever and chills. And we in the summer, take place of the plumber. That is by the length of our bills.”

— The Mosquito Song, 1908

Window screen, 1888

Window screen, 1888

Gift of Laura M. Trexler

Window screen, 1888

Window screen, 1888

Gift of Laura M. Trexler

Imperial Bronze Wire Cloth Trade Card, 1899

Imperial Bronze Wire Cloth Trade Card, 1899

Courtesy of Historic New England

"Oh! That horrid Mosquito" sheet music, 1882

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Typhoid fever quarantine notice, 1916

Typhoid fever quarantine notice, 1916

At the turn of the 20th century, medical researchers identified mosquitoes and flies as carriers of diseases ranging from malaria to pink eye. Public health officials and wire cloth manufacturers alike promoted window and door screens as a first line of defense.

Public health flyer entitled,

Public health flyer entitled, "The House Flies," 1900-20

Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society