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Globe Magazine

A few ways New Englanders have tried to ward off pests throughout history

The buzzy history of bug repellents.

Hulton Archive/Photo from Getty Images; Globe staff photo illustration

Mosquitoes, flies, ticks, fleas — when warm weather arrives in New England, so do the bugs. But for early settlers, these pests were more than just pesky. In fact, in 1623, Pilgrims sent a letter to their London sponsors asking to relocate their settlement, reporting they were “much annoyed by mosquitoes.”

Today, we have strong repellents with ingredients like DEET, IR3535, and picaridin, which are effective and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. “These products have been thoroughly tested for safety and effectiveness,” explains Brian Farless, superintendent of the East Middlesex and Suffolk County Mosquito Control Projects. “Most natural products on the market, and being made in the kitchen, haven’t been proven to repel mosquitoes.” Centuries ago, however, homemade methods were all New Englanders had. Here are some of the things they tried:

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Early 1600s: Sweet and Slick

Some indigenous peoples used sweetgrass as a mosquito repellent, braiding it and wearing it around their necks. (In a 2015 study, US Department of Agriculture researchers actually found that sweetgrass oil does have some bug-repelling properties.) Native Americans would also rub fat on their skin — often from bears, but also from eagles, raccoons, and fish — in an attempt to find some relief from mosquitoes.

Late 1600s: A Sprinkle of Snuff

When the first Pilgrims arrived in New England, the Wampanoag people taught them how to plant and fertilize crops such as corn, beans, and squash. They then sprinkled the planted mounds with powdered tobacco to repel insects. Tobacco is still used by some people as an organic pesticide.

Early 1800s: Smoking Them Out

Samuel Stearns, a Boston doctor, believed that burning certain plants could keep small bugs at bay. Stearns wrote that smoke from burning fleabane — a wildflower that resembles a daisy — was effective in repelling fleas, flies, gnats, and small insects. Despite its colorful name, fleabane hasn’t actually been proven to work.

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Mid-1800s: Unbearable Balms

Henry David Thoreau (that’s him, at left) was no stranger to the insects that swarmed New England summer. In an account of his time in Maine, Thoreau describes a bug-repelling ointment made from oil of turpentine, spearmint, and camphor. Unfortunately, after applying it to his face and hands, he found that he’d rather deal with the black flies. “The remedy was worse than the disease,” he concluded.

Early 1900s: Draining the Swamp

In the early 1930s, Massachusetts led the country’s efforts to combat mosquitoes — and unemployment — with the expansion of the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project. During the Depression, workers with the initiative built some 1,500 miles of drainage systems on the Cape’s salt marshes to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds without chemical pesticides. The project continues to use water management strategies for mosquito control today.

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Molly Grab is a graduate student at Emerson College. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.