Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cotton Ball Hanging on a Screen Door

Randy R Cox

Why was the cotton ball hanging from a screen on Grandma’s house? Longer than long ago, well maybe not that far back, but a lot of years ago, the baby boomer generation used to see cotton balls hanging from strings on the screen doors, usually on the houses of their family’s elders.

Often it was an aunt, or a grandmother, and sometimes on our own homes we would see the little cotton balls but seldom understood why.

I saw them, usually tied to a bobby pin with a short piece of cotton string. In those days “children were to be seen and not heard.” We heard that a lot. Maybe that’s why we never bothered to ask. At least I didn’t ask. I wondered, but I never asked, not until I was 40 years old anyway.

In north Texas where I grew up, we were very cautious about poking anything though a screen. Most of us didn’t have air conditioners, and those who did would still open a window when the weather would permit. Seems like it didn’t get as hot in those days as it does now, but I understand that is a highly debatable position these days.

Anyway, we all knew then that a mosquito could somehow climb through a metal screen without someone enlarging the hole with a bobby pin. So why would someone do that? Did they want to let a mosquito in to feed off us poor kids who ran around barefooted with our shirts off?

I remember sleeping on the screened in porch of my great Granny Eades’ old homestead in Dixon, Oklahoma. Granny Eades was a midwife to the Choctaw Indians around there. It was said that she was Black Dutch, herself, but it was many years before traditional Choctaws laughed and told me that Black Dutch was what light skinned Choctaws called themselves to avoid the problems that came with being an Indian.

Anyway, I’d watch that cotton ball dance lazy like with the wind on that screen door while I swatted at those pesky mosquitos that played “New Moon” on my skinny little body.

Sometime during the hot summer night I’d always fall asleep and by morning I’d always have enough blood left in me to make another day…but I never had enough gumption to ask Granny why those cotton balls were there.

The years passed and the cotton balls grew fewer and fewer, and to tell the truth I found girls and sports a lot more interesting than cotton balls so they just didn’t cross my mind.

My great grandparents began to die off, and my grandparents began to get old themselves. Suddenly I started to ask questions about things I should know but didn’t about our family, the depression, and lots of little things that had changed since they were kids. Still, the cotton balls didn’t seem all that important.

My wife, artist D. Bell found an old abandoned house in central Texas that caught her interest, I saw one of those cotton balls hanging from a rusty screen door. It was tied to a bobby pin, just like I remembered, but the old ball of cotton was now a droopy lump of dirty fiber. Debbi painted an oil painting called, “Tattered,” I loved the painting, but it sold. We have photographs of almost all of Debbi’s paintings but somehow the photo of that one has disappeared. Discovering that old homestead with the lump of cotton on a string brought back memories and set me upon a quest to finally solve the mystery of the cotton ball on a string.

I began to ask around. Some didn’t know what I was talking about. Others would smile and remember but they never knew exactly what had been the inspiration for the wispy little mobiles. I had exhausted all my own family resources and was forced to put my quest on hold for a while.

A few years went by and I was talking to my wife’s grandmother Mamie Lyn Bell. I believe she was about 95 at the time and I asked her every silly question that came to my mind. She was wonderful woman full of life and memories of old. Among her many adventures, she had met Orville and Wilbur Wright at the State Fair of Texas when she was about 13 years old. They invited Mamie Lyn and her sister to cross the rope and come inside where they could get a better look at the “Kitty Hawk” or whatever plane they had on display at the time, Aeroplanes were new fangled gadgets back then.

Anyway, one of the questions that I asked Mrs. Bell was the illusive mystery of the dancing cotton ball. “Ohhh!” she laughed getting excited at the memory of those things. She was capable of giggling like a schoolgirl at that age but with much more dignity than Orville and Wilbur must have witnessed.

Finally she told me. “It was to keep the flies away,” she said. “We’d hang them on the screen door to keep the flies from coming in when the door was opened. It was said the flies would see that cotton ball and think it was a spider egg.”

Well, once you hear that, it sorta makes sense, doesn’t it? A sneaky old fly wouldn’t want to come through the door of a house where a giant spider waited to catch ‘em.

Recently, I ran across some other curious people from my generation speculating about the cotton balls. Tennessee’s columnist Patricia Paris of or Texas author, Delbert Trew They all figured out it was to scare off the flies but I don’t think any of them mentioned the spider egg concept.

I thought it might be a good thing to write about this for all those people on the same quest to find out why the cotton balls once hung on thousands of screen doors around this land, but most of all for those who have never seen a screen door much less a cotton ball on a string. There may come a time in the future when knowledge like this might be useful again. Anyway, for those not blessed to have someone like Mamie Lyn Bell to teach them about the old ways, this may at least answer one of life’s many mysteries.


  1. Wow, what a great story. It's fun to try to hunt down long-forgotten customs.

  2. This story is interesting and fun ...

  3. Very interesting...I was getting curious to know what the cotton ball was...anyway the idea to scare the flies is not bad

  4. Wow! this is interesting one, most of my grand parents has an idea similarly about this cotton balls. But there are things also that they can't give the explanation why is it to be there or it must be. Now I know what is the purpose is cotton balls on screen.