Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Swishers and Swatters

Swatting of flies is with little doubt a human activity of great antiquity. We humans have long considered flies to be pests. Ancient writings, including Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Bible, include references to these two-winged insects and allude to their harmful attributes.

Consider that most common of flies, the housefly. It delights in hanging around us and our dinner table. Such behavior frequently makes this insect the target of that hand-held item of insect destruction widely known as a fly swatter.

The history of fly swatters is not fully understood, but it is obvious that the device has evolved in its years of existence. The earliest fly swatters were probably not swatters at all. They were swishers.

Fly swishers were not intended to kill their targets, but were used merely to keep flies on the wing. Early fly swishers were probably nothing more than a naked hand waved in the direction of the offending insect.

Somewhere in history someone practicing fly swishing discovered that grabbing a branch or bunch of grass increased their reach and effectiveness. Thus the first fly swishers were developed.

A more modern version of such a device is what is known as a fly whisk. Whisks consist of a stick with a batch of hair from the tail of a horse lashed to one end. Such an item was used by the servant lad in the song “The Blue-Tail Fly” to keep the fly from biting the pony. Fly whisks also were used to keep flies from landing on freshly baked pies cooling on the window sill. Such activity may have provided the name for shoofly pie. 

When we humans decide to smash rather than shoo, the swishers are not equal to the task. Thus the fly swatter was developed. The earliest of the insect swishers, the open hand, also could be used as a swatter, but the process could be painful and a bit messy.

One of the earliest fly swatters was a piece of leather fastened to a stick. In order to decrease air resistance in the device and increase encounters with the target insect, the leather had a batch of holes in it. Such a device turned out to be very successful for killing flies, and it also doubled as a disciplinary tool for young children.

Later the fly swatter was made from screen material. These devices were common in homes in the first half of the 20th century. With the name of a company printed on the wooden handle, fly swatters were frequently distributed for advertising purposes. Funeral homes commonly made use of such advertising. This seems appropriate considering the intended fate of the flies on which a fly swatter was used.

With modern times, the fly swatter has become a plastic device with a wire handle. Now it is even possible to buy an executive fly shooter, a spring-loaded device that projects a plastic swatter to intercept flies in flight. A got-to-have item for bored executives everywhere who want to practice the ancient ritual of fly swatting!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann