‘The Enemy has Many Faces’

Insects, Clothing Inventions and Colonial Legacies

One of the topics we’ve been exploring at POP concerns how clothing inventions mediate/shape/reflect relations between humans and animals. Originally, what we had expected to find were designs for activities such as hunting, farming and caring for/playing with domesticated animals. And indeed, these types of clothing exist in the patent archive.

Yet, we kept coming across lots of patents that were concerned with an entirely different species: insects. And what was even more striking than the sheer number of patents on insect-protective clothing in the archive was the language that inventors used in the description.

1864 ‘Mosquito Net’ for for travellers by John Zengeler of Chicago, Illinois

Insects were called “the enemy with many faces”, and seemed to be constantly “attacking”, “annoying” and “tormenting” humans and, as a result, special measures were needed to “protect” and “shield” humans.

We were also struck by how few of the patents mention health concerns as a key reason for why insect protection is necessary. Rather, inventors across the 200 years of the dataset and from all parts of the world, including the US, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Russia, Japan, China and Australia, seem to agree that insects are a problem and one that needs to be fixed.

Photo credit: @dustinhumes_photography for Unsplash

While we start with patents, our research extends into related archives and ideas. We’ve been exploring the changing nature of the risks and threats posed by insects in relation to socio-political happenings and cultural beliefs. For instance, in 19th-century UK, the presence of the house fly was linked to ideas about class, cleanliness, and propriety.

In the beginning of the 20th century, it is also evident from newspapers that people were aware of how illnesses could be transmitted through flies and mosquitoes. More so, insects are deeply linked to colonial exploration and expansion.

Insects bothered and pained the bodies of colonists, explorers and settlers as well as their livestock. They also destroyed crops. But interestingly, patents in the archive are for all types of bodies and activities: for people who are sedentary or sleeping; for active people like hunters, fishermen or soldiers; for women walking about or sitting in a garden; for children; for labourers.

Photo credit: Photoholgic for Unsplash

Across those categories, the patents echo dominant colonial discourses that connect insects (and the various environments in which they occur) with the ‘uncivil other’ and ideas of tropical excess, decay and death as well as fears of impurity and class transgression in the homeland (Sheller, 2012; Davie, 2017).

Clothing locals was considered a critical part of the civilizing mission –  clothing in this sense is a colonial technology for ‘civilising’. To have these clothing inventions in the patent archive, which is ultimately part of a Eurocentric colonial system, reinforces the role of clothing as a technology used by colonisers to dominate indigenous folks.

Researching insect-protective clothing inventions then, is not so much about acts of citizenship that are subversive or resistant, but offers instead a critical and important engagement with the colonial legacy of the patent archive and the concept of citizenship more broadly.

While we start with patents, our research extends into related archives and ideas.

Kat and I are currently preparing a talk about this work-in-progress topic to present in mid-May at a workshop organized by PASSIM, an exciting ERC funded research project that explores Patents as Scientific Information, 1895–2020. The project is led by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, Linköping University, Sweden and they are hosting a workshop titled ‘Patents in the Service of War and Peace’.

We are very much looking forward to presenting in front of an interdisciplinary audience and to having stimulating discussions. We are also in the process of finalizing a journal article on the topic.

1918 “Mosquito and Fly Protective Headgear” by Isabella Simpson.


Simpson, Isabella May Jane. (1918) Pat. US1287478 Mosquito and Fly Protective Head-Gear, 10 Dec. Accessed at the European Patent Office, www.epo.org

Zengeler, John. (1864) Pat. US41957 Improved Mosquito-Net, 15 March. Accessed at the European Patent Office, www.epo.org

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