This year during Pilgrimage season, I headed over to Vicksburg to see some of the early 20th-century houses they have on tour as a contrast to the more antebellum focus in Natchez and Columbus. Two of the most fabulous houses built in Vicksburg in the first decade of the twentieth century are both on South Cherry Street: the Craig-Flowers House (Great Hope Manor), built in 1906 and designed by New York architect William W. Knowles, and the amazing Prairie-style Shlenker House, built in 1907, and designed by an architect as yet unknown.
Something that struck me enough to take pictures at the time were the very nicely detailed screen doors on both houses.
Life is full of coincidences. After I had dutifully filed my photos away, I happened to be over at the state archives scrolling through the Vicksburg Evening Post in 1905 (truth be told, I have become a bit obsessed about finding the architect of Shlenker House), and I got caught up in the articles about the yellow fever that swept through the Gulf South that year, including Vicksburg. Each day’s front page told the number of new cases and the latest deaths, while other articles mentioned which other cities had been stricken, which Vicksburg citizens were stranded out of town due to the quarantine, etc. Clearly, the routines of the town had been deeply affected.
Finally, by the fall, after the first frost, the Post began to turn to other matters, but they had learned a lesson that summer and in October the editors ran this editorial article directed at architects which, I think, explains those great screen doors not only on the Shlenker and Craig Houses (built within a year or two of the epidemic), but probably on many houses in many Southern towns.
I have always loved my screen porch, but I admit, I’ve never really thought about screening as anything more than a luxury. Clearly to people living with the scourge of yellow fever, screening was considered a life-saver.
Vicksburg Evening Post
October 4, 1905, p. 2
The sorrowful experiences of this Summer have demonstrated the necessity of having all residences screened with the fine wire mesh that will effectually exclude mosquitoes as well as flies. In fact, all buildings–stores and offices as well as residences–should be thoroughly screened.
It will be in order for architects in the South, henceforth, when they furnish plans and specifications for buildings, to particularly provide for the screening of all doors and windows for houses that are to be inhabited by human beings, and for people who can afford the expense it will be well to also have the galleries screened. Vestibuled doors for entrance and exit should be provided, to keep out mosquitoes, just as vestibuled storm doors are provided for houses in the North to keep out the wintry winds.
Even if the mosquitoes did not convey the most dreaded of all diseases, they are a nuisance and an abomination anyway; and in years when the stegomyia cannot spread yellow fever, the anopheles mosquitoes can spread malarial fever which abides in the Mississippi Valley section every year.
The exclusion of flies from dwellings is also a great desideratum. These pests are carriers of contagion, and are an especial nuisance in dining rooms and kitchens in all houses that are not screened.
The campaign of education for screening houses and for mosquito destruction has made a splendid beginning this season; let it be kept up form now on, so that it will be a permanent practice in every town and city in the South which is in danger from yellow fever or malarial infection.
The Post ran a follow-up article two days later:
Vicksburg Evening Post, Friday, October 6, 1905
The Delta Trust and Banking Company is now effectually screened, and the First National Bank is being placed in like good condition. The Waterworks Company’s office is nicely screened, and today the Gas Company’s office is being screened. Next season every residence, store and office in the city should be screened.
I can’t find much about the history of the technology of screening material, so here’s another thesis topic perhaps. The technology had apparently been around at least for most of a century before the yellow fever epidemic of 1905, at least according to wikipedia, but of course, it was only in the 1890s that it came to be understood that mosquitoes were the main culprit in the transmission of yellow fever, so before then people wouldn’t have understood the real need to keep mosquitoes and other insects out of the house.