HOBSON’S ANTI SKEETER…for the relief of itching from mosquito bites. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it, especially if you live in mosquito country. Unfortunately, the list of contents and directions for use are downright scary. Manufactured during the early twentieth century, at a time when the production of chemicals in the United States was on the rise, Hobson’s Anti Skeeter was made of substances we would never dream today of spreading voluntarily on our skin (i.e. turpentine, kerosene, carbolic acid). This charming elixir is one in a long line of formulas that have been developed throughout history in the ongoing quest to manage the mosquito and its effects on humanity.
An important part of the food chain, the mosquito holds the dubious distinction of being the unofficial Minnesota state bird. With a hint of summer finally in the air, thoughts of this tiny two-winged menace are not far behind. Some varieties of mosquito are carriers of deadly diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and the current local favorite, West Nile virus. Female mosquitoes are the ones to watch out for as their skin-piercing mouth parts enable them to bite people and animals in order to extract blood. Female mosquitoes need the protein found in blood to help develop their eggs.
Hobson’s Anti Skeeter was developed specifically to relieve the after-effects from the bite of a mosquito; in other words, to soothe that nasty itch. This chemical concoction, which just might be able to knock a dead horse off its feet, was manufactured by the Pfeiffer Chemical Company of New York and St. Louis, Missouri. Founded in 1901 by Henry Pfeiffer (1857-1939), the company was a family-owned business that Henry operated with his younger brother, G. A. (Gustavus Adolphus) Pfeiffer (1872-1953). The son of German immigrants, Henry was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Henry got his start in the chemical industry as a clerk in a retail drugstore in Cedar Falls. By the time he was in his thirties, he had moved to St. Louis and had started his own wholesale drug business.
Hobson’s Anti Skeeter is an unpleasant-sounding mixture of turpentine, kerosene, oil citronella and carbolic acid. Turpentine, a flammable fluid used mainly as a solvent, is slightly toxic and is irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. Known health hazards include damage to the lungs, respiratory system and central nervous system. If ingested, turpentine can cause renal failure. Turpentine has been used medicinally since ancient times for such things as abrasions and wounds, as a treatment for lice and as part of a chest rub or inhaler. Vicks VapoRubs, for example, continue to list turpentine oil as one of the ingredients. Kerosene, the second ingredient listed on the label, is a thin combustible oil distilled from petroleum and other hydrocarbons. Developed in 1846 by the Canadian geologist, Abraham Gesner (1797-1864), kerosene is currently widely used in jet and rocket fuel and for heating fuel. Kerosene is moderately toxic by ingestion, inhalation and skin absorption.
The last ingredient listed on the label is carbolic acid. Also known as phenol, carbolic acid is a clear, sweet-smelling liquid that causes carbolic acid poisoning if touched or swallowed. A toxic high-volume industrial chemical made from tar, carbolic acid is currently found in products such as perfumes, lubricating oils and nylon. Widely used to make plastics, herbicides, biocides, dyes, and other synthetic chemicals and pharmaceuticals, carbolic acid also serves as a solvent and a general disinfectant. Carbolic acid was first used medicinally in the 1860s by the British surgeon, Joseph Lister (1827-1912), to clean and dress wounds.
The only ingredient listed on the Hobson’s Anti Skeeter label that is not known to cause harm is Oil Citronella. A volatile liquid oil derived from dried cultivated grasses that grow in southern Asia, Oil of Citronella has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes and only recently against insects. Oil of Citronella‘s anti-insecticidal properties were accidentally discovered in 1901 when it was applied to hair as a hairdressing fragrance. Not licensed for use until almost a quarter of a century later, Oil of Citronella is now regarded as the first truly effective active ingredient in mosquito repellents. Found in many familiar products, such as candles, sprays and lotions, Oil of Citronella’s distinctive odor masks the carbon dioxide or lactic acid on human bodies that mosquitoes find attractive. Unfortunately, its repellent qualities are limited as it evaporates quickly and large amounts are needed to be effective.
Today, mosquito management focuses mainly on repellents rather than soothing the results of a mosquito bite with something like Hobson’s Anti Skeeter. Repellents are considered an important tool in assisting people with protecting themselves from mosquito-borne diseases. DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide or N,N-diethyl-3-methyl-benzamide), which was developed in 1953, and Picaridin (2-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-piperidinecarboxylic acid 1-methylpropyl ester), which is a newer alternative to DEET, are the most common and considered the most effective conventional repellents in use today. Both of these, however, are part of mosquito management products that come with warnings as stringent, though not quite as frightening, as those found on the Hobson’s Anti Skeeter label. Unfortunately we have yet to find a completely sure and safe way to hide ourselves from the intrepid mosquito. May the quest continue!
By Ann Marie Johnson
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, 2009, Vol. 22, No. 1.