Alyssa Tou was a summer intern in the Archives 1 Reference Section in Washington, DC.
Most recently, I have been working on compiling a box list for a little-perused but quite interesting series in the Records of the U.S. Naval Observatory (Record Group 78). This series is known as the Records of Astronomical Observations Made Chiefly In and Near Washington, with Subsequent Computations and Compilations, January 1845-1907 (NAID 2125269). But as I have discovered, much more is contained in this series than its title would suggest. In fact, the series includes many records of observations made far from Washington, most notably those from expeditions to Sumatra, Algeria, and Spain where observers witnessed total solar eclipses.
For the purposes of this blog, there is one particular file that I want to highlight. It is housed in a box labeled “Miscellaneous,” and has little to do with astronomical observations. It is a letter originally sent to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy on July 26, 1919, from the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. The subject line reads: “Eradication of Roaches in the Navy Department Building.” Once I came across this, I knew that I had to look at it more closely, even though I was a bit leery of what I might encounter.
This letter contains a warning about the dangers of roaches; speculation on how roaches were entering the building, surviving, and propagating; and a recommendation for eliminating them. As per their reputation, roaches are presented as being particularly troublesome pests on account of their “unusual ability to preserve themselves from ordinary means of destruction” and their “rapidity of multiplication.” Much is made of the roach’s incredible versatility of diet as well: they are said to eat “dead animal matter, cereals, and in fact any form of food material; woolens, leather, and cloth of leather book bindings. Occasionally they turn cannibal. Probably dead roaches frequently disappear in this way.” The letter also comments on the roaches’ menace: they “soil everything they come in contact with, leaving a nauseous roachy odor.”
The recommendation for destruction mainly involves trapping roaches with plaster of Paris and water, a combination that sets once the roaches ingest it and that “clogs” their intestines. Another strategy that the letter suggests is to sprinkle sodium fluoride powder on all surfaces. Roaches walk through the substance and attempt to clean themselves by licking their feet, whereby the substance properly enters and poisons their systems.
While this letter might be found in other record groups, since it was sent by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and potentially distributed to other offices and agencies, its presence among this series of records was a surprise. For the most part, the “Records of Astronomical Observations Made Chiefly In and Near Washington” do deal with astronomical observations, but every so often something different from the other records in the box – like a letter about roaches – crops up.