...in 1917, the Boston Women's Municipal League held the first and as it happened, only Rat Day. Increasing numbers of rats infested neighborhoods ranging from the overcrowded North End to the posh precincts of the Back Bay. The well-educated middle-class women who belonged to the League set out to remedy the problem. They launched an anti-rat education campaign, which culminated in "Rat Day." Prizes were offered to city residents who turned in the largest number of rat carcasses. Cold weather and a low level of interest among the public made for disappointing results. The event was not repeated. The problem was real, however, and the city of Boston picked up where the lady volunteers left off.
In the early 1900s, many middle- and upper-class American women were taking on new roles. Increasing numbers were attending college and pursuing careers in the new field of social work. Others participated in volunteer efforts to assist and uplift the urban poor. In both cases it seemed "natural" for women to focus on "social housekeeping," as the campaign to improve public health, education, and living conditions in the nation's cities was called.
In 1908, a group of well-to-do Boston women formed the Boston Women's Municipal League (BWML) "to promote civic betterment." According to the League's historian, the founders believed that "housekeeping of a great city was women's work. It was their province to see that the city was kept clean, as it was also their province to see that their own homes were clean. So obviously, the garbage and ashes should be promptly and scientifically removed from the streets and alleys, the markets freed from dirt, and dust, and flies, and the air cleaned from soot and smoke."
The BWML's founders were drawn from the city's most established families. The members were the wives and daughters of businessmen, ministers, professors, doctors, and lawyers. Within a short time, the League had a membership of 2,000. Their dues funded studies and programs, usually carried out by paid professionals; however, volunteer committeewomen managed many of the League's activities.
BWML concentrated on three main areas of concern: public health, education, and social welfare. The Committee on Public Improvements and Sanitation almost immediately identified a serious problem with rats and flies. A subcommittee was formed.
It would no doubt have seemed strange to their mothers that wealthy Boston women were spending time investigating the habits of rats and flies, the health risks they posed, and different methods of extermination. The women became so well-informed that the committee was asked to endorse various methods of extermination. The League's reputation spread, along with the slogan: "If we have to go to New York for our hats, New York comes to Boston to ask about rats."
And not just New York. The League sent its anti-rat literature to every library in the U.S. and Canada, to scientific libraries in Europe, and to every major newspaper in North America. Requests for the materials came from places as distant as Australia, Brazil, India, and Russia.
Soon the members determined that literature was not enough. Under the banner "Kill the Fly, Starve the Rat!" they presented illustrated lectures in high schools and movie theaters. Graphic posters of rats and flies appeared all over the city.
The BWML claimed that 750,000 rats infested Boston. People in the city's poorer districts had long lived with rats in their midst, but the excavations for the subway and Charles River Esplanade had driven rats into the wealthier Back Bay neighborhood. Shoddy building construction was a further stimulus to the rat population. The League's members were still denied the right to vote; they petitioned public officials to use concrete instead of wooden piers along the waterfront.
In 1917 the League initiated a citywide extermination program. The mayor officially proclaimed Tuesday, February 13th "Rat Day" in Boston. Local newspapers carried stories for weeks in advance. Railroads, stores, business organizations, hotels, and civic groups all supported the effort.
Rat collection points were set up throughout the city. The League offered prizes for the largest number of rat carcasses turned in. A similar campaign in London flushed so many rats out of the subway that grey rat skin had supposedly become fashionable material for bags and pocketbooks. The BWML prepared for a massive collection, but a cold snap a few days earlier and city residents' lack of interest kept the numbers low.
The League's campaign against the rat came to a head and to an end with Rat Day. While the Sub-committee on Rats and Flies ceased to exist, the city's rat problem did not. The era of volunteer-run public health programs was nearing an end. Paid employees of the Boston Board of Health carried on the work.
Today, almost 90 years later, the city devotes considerable resources to containing the rat population. When the "Big Dig" began, there was widespread concern that the project would displace millions of rats into Boston's North End and the waterfront. Eight million dollars was budgeted for rodent management. According to official statements, the program has been an unqualified success. The members of the Boston Women's Municipal League would no doubt be delighted by the large number of rat carcasses collected each day.
The Women's Municipal League of Boston: a History of Thirty-five Years of Civic Endeavor, by Dorothy Worell (Women's Municipal League of Committees Inc., 1943).
A scrapbook of the WMLB's campaign to rid Boston of rats is in the collection of the Bostonian Society.