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~ The Old Sachem ~ Boston once held a “Rat Day”

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By Bill Stewart


February 13, 1917, was designated “Rat Day” by the Women’s Municipal League of Boston, who thought up situations to improve the city. The League was a group formed by upper-class women in 1908 in Boston “to promote civic betterment” focusing on problems within the city. The women of the group didn’t work so they looked to projects that in their estimation would better the city. The focus of the group when they started out was problems with public health, education and social welfare.

In 1917 while troops were fighting Germans in Europe, the women were fighting what they believed to be a serious problem: RATS. Rats were prominent in the waterfronts, the North End and South Boston where these women usually stayed away from. They quickly ascertained that rats were such a serious problem that they published a report – “The Rat Campaign” – and provided funds for people to bring in rats that they captured and killed for a reward.

There was the risk of bubonic plague transmitted by rat fleas. Outbreaks in San Francisco from 1900 to 1907 and in New Orleans in 1914, along with the Boston problem, led them to provide a solution. The women who investigated the problem and developed the solution were asked by New Yorkers about their solution. The Boston women produced a slogan: “If we have to go to New York for our hats, New York comes to Boston to ask about rats.”

The group got the support of the Boston Health Department, the local newspapers, trade journals and religious magazines to advance the program. The group produced flyers in a variety of languages to alert the less affluent people to their program. They produced and distributed two-color posters throughout the city. Windows displayed the posters in pharmacies, hardwares and grocery shops. The Boy Scouts distributed 1,000 cards to alert the public. The League commissioned the National Motion Picture Company to produce an educational film titled “The Rat Menace.” Educational slides were shown in movie theaters over a period of five weeks.

Cash prizes were to be provided to persons who submitted dead rats. The weather in February was bitterly cold so that citizens could not work so well uncovering and destroying the rats. A Mister Rymkus collected the most: 282. He read the inducement in a document in Polish. Less than a thousand rats were rounded up in the cold weather so the program ended without serious depletion of the rat population. The rats probably took to hiding in their burrows, rather than roam the city in the cold.

The city continued to isolate the rat problem through the years, and in 1971 the staff of the Model Cities Program created a program to once again decimate the rat population, with very little success.

The rats appear to be winning the battle.


  (Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, who is better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)

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