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Lice Comb from Fort Crawford

Bone lice comb from site of first Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 1816-1829.
(Museum object #1997.62.11941)

Everyday life at a frontier fort in the early nineteenth century was no easy affair. When the United States Army decided to erect a new permanent fort at Prairie du Chien in 1816, they did so on an island in the Mississippi River about two miles north of its confluence with the Wisconsin River. With its proximity to marshy land, rudimentary sanitation facilities, and a poor understanding of the causes of disease, Fort Crawford was not a notably healthy environment. Soldiers could expect a seasonal threat of mosquito-born malaria as well as periodic outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, and typhus. This lice comb, excavated from the site of Fort Crawford by archaeologists in the 1930s, documents one other insect nuisance Fort Crawford soldiers had to endure: head lice.

The Army built Fort Crawford the ruins of an earlier American fort, Fort Shelby, which the British had captured and destroyed during the War of 1812. In addition to its strict military functions, the fort served as a major supply depot, an important rendezvous point for participants in the Mississippi and Wisconsin River trade network, and as a neutral location where representatives of western Indian tribes and eastern governments could assemble. After a series of floods during the 1820s which slowly degraded the structure, the Army finally abandoned the wooden fort and built a second Fort Crawford of cut stone on higher ground a short distance away.

Previously routine companions of people of all economic levels, pesticides and improvements in daily hygiene made head lice infestations relatively rare in modernized countries by the mid-twentieth century. Soldiers and visitors to Fort Crawford, however, dealt with head lice as a normal part of life, simply accepting periodic infestation in much the same way as they would have to deal with an occasional bout of influenza or a cold.

Head lice (blood-sucking insects that grow to about 2-3mm long) have most likely resided on people for as long as humans have existed and cannot live on other animals. These lice tend to stay in the hair of their host, feed from the scalp, and attach their eggs to the hair itself. Since they cannot jump or fly, lice depend on close physical contact to move from one host to another, usually hitching a ride on a hat, bedding, or occasionally through personal articles that may be stored together.

The close quarters of military barracks provided ample transmission opportunities. In addition, in the early nineteenth century most people rarely bathed more than once every few days and often wore the same clothing for many days in a row. Cleaning of bed sheets and other linens usually occurred much less frequently. For soldiers stationed on the frontier, primarily men who had little or no training in the domestic arts, the period between cleanings probably extended even longer. This combination of circumstances made repeated lice infestations at the fort more likely than not.

Since doctors and scientists of the time knew little about the source or life cycle of lice (not until 1864 did Louis Pasteur definitively document the full developmental cycle of lice and other insects), they found it difficult to prevent infestations. Instead, to manage an outbreak people used fine tooth combs like this one to remove adult lice and their eggs (or nits) from their hair and then crushed them. Other treatments of the time included the application of an ointment of brimstone (sulphur) and lard to reduce the itching, and saturating the hair with ‘red precipity’ (mercuric oxide powder) to try to kill the lice. The latter treatment probably slowly harmed the patient as much as it helped, but doctors still frequently used mercury compounds during the early nineteenth century as most were not convinced of the element’s poisonous properties.

Less common than in the past, head lice infestations still occur in institutional settings, often schools. While pesticides produced in the mid-twentieth century have reduced the frequency of such infestations in developed countries, these treatments are not effective on eggs and, in some instances, lice have begun to develop immunity. Newer techniques such as drying lice and their eggs have now come onto the scene, but fine tooth combs such as those used at Fort Crawford still play a large role in combating lice infestations to this day.

[Sources: Zinsser, Hans. Rats, Lice and History (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1934); Prucha, Francis Paul. Broadax & Bayonet: The Role of the United States Army in the Development of the Northwest, 1815-1860 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995); Telzrow, Michael E. “A Dog Before a Soldier: Military Society in the Old Northwest” (unpublished graduate school paper, UW-Milwaukee); "A Brief History of Head Lice" (online content at]


Posted on November 09, 2006

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