Each great civilization is plagued by its own particular infestation—the point at which the balance between man and vermin shifts uncomfortably in the direction of the critters. Biblical Egypt had its plague of locusts, modern New York City is terrorized by bedbugs, and Victorian London had a serious rat problem. Full story on Lapham’s Quarterly.
1919 was a bad year for rats. Six years earlier the State of Indiana had declared rats a public enemy and “rat day” had been officially declared to encourage people to kill rats in their spare time. Apart from spreading diseases, destroying property and generally being creepy, vicious buggers (it’s the hairless tail), rats were destroying crops at a rapid rate. By 1919 the US Department of Agriculture estimated that the loss of crops and property caused by rats was $200 million (in 1919!), which was equivalent to the annual gross earnings of 200,000 men at the time.
That same year, the Department of Health issued an official five step plan for managing their numbers:
2) depriving them of a breeding place
3) depriving them of living space
4) “killing him at every opportunity”
5) passing city and state “anti-rat” laws
Over in the UK, the British had a more direct approach: poison gas.
“The mechanism of the gas machine is simple. It is of a light and portable type, consisting simply of a generator, a fan with a handle attached and a reversible tube. In the process of charging ordinary rook sulphur is wrapped in a piece of dry paper, which is Ignited and placed in the generator. Sulfurous fumes of a high strength are produced, and these are driven by means of the fan along the tube, the mouth of which is placed in the rat hole. At the first demonstration held in England the fumes killed most of the rats in the hole, only those which were far away in the run being able to escape, and they were killed by an alert terrier.”
So, fumigating rats worked. No word on what became of the alert terrier.