SPLAT: Lifelong friendship lands world's largest fly swatter collection in Kalamazoo

Iza and Nico van Riemsdijk were trying to get 1,250 flyswatters on an airliner from the Netherlands to Kalamazoo.

"That was a great thing, the customs," Nico says, deadpan. "They were very, 'well, 1,250 flyswatters,' and they asked us, 'Can you give the country of origin of each flyswatter?' Well, we didn't do that, it's impossible." 

Some were flywhisks, animal tails in handles from Africa and South America. "What animals are they from?" customs asked. "Not ones of endangered species?"

They eventually managed to convince customs that it was okay to transport 1,250 flyswatters over the Atlantic, but, "It gave a little delay," he says. 

Iza and Nico van Riemsdjik brought 1,2500 flyswatters to Kalamazoo from the Netherlands to be displayed.The swatters are Iza's. Iza van Riemsdijk's full collection is of 3,200 flyswatters and related pieces. "I left a few at home," she says.

The 1,250 are on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in the exhibit "SPLAT! The Buzz about Flyswatters," up now until January 7.

She says, "The Kalamazoo Valley Museum will be famous. It will be famous in the Netherlands because I am the first Dutch woman going with flyswatters to the United States!" 

Why Kalamazoo?

In 1966, her family hosted an exchange student from Kalamazoo, Liz Rohs. "I call her my American sister," van Riemsdijk says. They've kept in touch, and Iza and Nico visit them in Kalamazoo often.

In the Netherlands, "I had a beautiful exhibition in a museum, and she saw it." Rohs arranged a meeting with the KVM in 2019. The exhibit was set for 2020, but because of the pandemic, was postponed until this year.

Isa van Reimsdijk of the Netherlands and Liz Rohs of Kalamazoo met during Rohs' foreign exchange experience.In a later interview, Rohs says that they've shared many trips around the U.S. with Iza and Nico. At a certain point in their friendship, "Everywhere we went, we looked for flyswatters. It's just a funny thing to go into odd stores and look for flyswatters." 

"There's worse things you could do," Rohs says of van Riemsdijk’s habit. "It's really funny, I think. It's hilarious." 

Now that the exhibit is in Kalamazoo, Rohs knows that "in her house... there's just a lot of nails in the walls. Nothing hanging there." 

Rohs is in contact with her sister in Albuquerque, NM, who knows a guy who's connected to a museum there. "The exhibit will keep traveling, we hope," she says. "I'm her agent," she adds with a laugh.

An American invention

van Riemsdijk has found no one who shares her hobby. There's certainly no one with a larger collection of devices to kill flies.

How does one build such a collection?

van Riemsdijk holds a flyswatter from Japan, the first in her collection."Start with number one, then number two, number three," she says. She began noticing designs that were beyond the usual handle-flap variety. "I was surprised that they could make such a beautiful thing just for an everyday-use product."

van Riemsdijk showed us her first, a pink swatter in the shape of a stylized insect. She got it on a vacation in Japan, in 1989.

She pulled on the end of the handle and took out plastic tweezers in the shape of fly wings. Using them, "You can pick up the fly," she says. "Japanese are very hygienic. Don't touch the dead fly!" 

Flies are dirty, filthy, and can carry disease, everyone knows. 

Are there a lot of flies in the Netherlands?

"There are lots of flies in the Netherlands, yeah." There are flies all over the globe, she says.

A portion of van Reimsdijk’s collection, on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.van Riemsdijk worked as a nephrologist — a kidney disease specialist — in Rotterdam. Her profession allowed her to travel around the world, to medical conferences, and she started spotting fly-killing devices everywhere.

In her home country, it's the "vliegenmepper," in Germany it's the "fliegenklatsche," and in Scandinavian countries it's the "fluesmekker."

Her older Scandinavian swatters tend to have leather flaps, she notes. She has a rubber one from around 1920, her oldest. 

She points to newer innovations: A fly pistol that shoots a spring-mounted disk-shaped swatter at the fly. An electric tennis-racket-like zapper that is meant to fry the fly. Plastic clappers have two spring-loaded hands "that clap together so you'll get it in midair." 

What's the best swatter?

"The best flyswatter is the one with the biggest holes. The fly will escape if he feels a difference in air pressure or light."

"Did you know the fly can carry about three million bacteria on the six legs?" she says. "And did you know that the fly can fly backwards? Now you know!"

A portion of van Reimsdijk’s collection, on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.van Riemsdijk buzzes with fly info. As her collection expanded, so did her research, which went into her book "Flyswatters." She sold the English translation during her appearances at the Kalamazoo exhibit. (Those who wish to buy the book, they are available from Elisabeth Rohs, $10 plus postage.)

Did you know that the flyswatter is an American invention? van Riemsdijk is surprised that few in this country know this. "The flyswatter as we know it, they were invented in the United States."

In 1900, Decatur, Ill. entrepreneur Robert R. Montgomery attached a flap of wire mesh to a wooden handle, and patented the "fly killer.

Then public health crusader Dr. Samuel Crumbine outed the fly as a health menace. 

He had gone after patent medicines that were mostly alcohol, campaigned against the pollution of rivers, and, after a bout of food poisoning from bad oysters, helped establish rules for shipping shellfish to his land-locked state of Kansas.

Crumbine also led a campaign against spitting in public. No unsanitary thing escaped from his view. 

A portion of van Reimsdijk’s collection, on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.In 1905 he joined the Kansas Boy Scouts to go after the common fly. Though invented by Montgomery, Crumbine said the Scouts invented their own fly-killers (also wire mesh on sticks). But, after he saw crowds at a baseball game yell "Swat the fly," he renamed it the flyswatter.

"Not swat a ball, swat a fly!" van Riemsdijk says.

Through the Scouts' magazine, and then through the national press, he popularized swatting as a fun sport that also combats disease. It quickly spread around the world. Swatting contests were held from Canada to Australia.

Art, politics, flies

In the cases at the KVM are swatters in the shape of flies, spider webs, and bats. Educational ones from China with the Western alphabet in the netting. Ones shaped like flowers, tulips, hands, feet, a newspaper, a floppy disk. Ones that are pure art, like one with a haunting face in the netting, by French designer Philip Stark.

Look up, and hanging from the ceiling are swatters in a literal rainbow of colors.

Swatters promoting products, sports, music, and politics. She has a few of former President Donald Trump — no clear message in the designs showing that hitting flies with his face is pro- or anti-Trump. Matching Bush/Quayle and Clinton/Gore swatters from 1992 that look like they were made by the same company. 

There's one inspired by the incident where a fly landed on Vice President Mike Pence's head during a 2020 debate. Iza's husband Nico points out a misspelling in the Biden/Harris swatter: "TRUTH: Ho more flies." The "lies" is underlined, but "ho" should probably be "no." "It was made in China," he points out. It turns out that the embarrassment didn't cost them the election.

A flyswatter depicting former U.S. president, Donald Trump. One of the several American Politically-themed swatters.Then there was that time President Obama swatted a fly with his own hand, as mentioned in the "Flyswatter" book.

"We thought we could ask Trump or Obama to open the exhibition, but that's impossible," he jokes. 

Nico points out tiny flyswatters for dollhouses, flyswatters that show how plastic can disintegrate after many decades, and art featuring flyswatters.

We ask him what he thinks of Iza's hobby.

"It's a very nice hobby," he says. "We travel a lot, so we go to shops where you usually don't go in, and talk about flyswatters." He has his own collection, "records and CDs, I have 16,000. It's terrible," he says, chuckling. 

Iza and Njco van Reimsdijk examine her collection, decades in the making.He loves American music, so he points out a swatter promoting Nashville’s country and “a very special one, Elvis Presley!”

Iza hopes that after the exhibit closes in January, she'll be able to tour it to other US museums. 

She asks, "How do you think about flyswatters now? When you see a flyswatter, you think, oh, that's one of the 3,200.'"

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