Picture the scene: it’s summertime – the perfect weather for a stroll around a leafy neighborhood. Kids are playing on lawns, music is drifting out of open windows, tall glasses of lemonade are being gratefully consumed on porches. Yet as you pass a nearby house, something strange catches your eye. This item seems somehow out of step with the rest of the community. So you squint to take a closer look and realize that it’s a see-through plastic bag hanging from a neighbor’s porch. It glints in the sunlight, too, and you notice that it’s filled with water… and a collection of small change. The sight is so peculiar that it makes you stop and wonder: what the heck does it mean?
Of course, you’d simply have to conduct a closer inspection of the plastic bag if you’d happened on an object like this. The questions are too intriguing not to explore, after all. Not least: why would someone fix a plastic bag filled with water to their home? What is the purpose behind it? There’s a chance, too, that it wouldn’t be the only property displaying such a bizarre choice of ornament.
In fact, water-filled bags dotted with coins can be seen in residents’ doorways, attached to window frames, in trees and on porches, throughout the Southern states of the nation. It’s not just people’s homes that have these weird-looking adornments hanging about the properties, either. They can be seen suspended around restaurants, cafés, barbecues and other public spaces, too.
The sight might be confusing to someone who’s never seen it before, of course. But there’s actually a purpose to this seemingly odd choice of decoration. You see, it’s not a simple ornament – as many people who live in the South can confirm. It turns out that this phenomenon is an effective solution to a prevalent problem.
This isn’t just an old wives’ tale, either. In fact, the science behind the reasons for placing coins in a bag of water outside your home might blow your mind. And when you learn what this simple trick is used for, you’ll probably want to employ the practice around your own home as well. So what is it all about?
Well, this simple trick has got house-proud moms and dads all abuzz on the internet. And that could be because coins in water are often associated with good luck. After all, there’s a long tradition of people making wishes as they toss loose change into fountains. This practice goes back to European legends when gifts were once offered at wells to appease irate deities.
These days, though, the act of throwing coins into fountains can result in someone making a lot of money. According to Business Insider, you see, millions of visitors to Rome’s Trevi Fountain toss away roughly $4,500 every day. And since 2007, that money has been put toward supporting a variety of charities. However, placing coins in bags of water outside of houses is unlikely to make anybody rich. Nor is it to ward off bad luck or to make a wish.
Yet throwing coins in a bag of water is a trick you might want to know about – particularly if you enjoy food in the warmer Southern states. That’s because this is a strategy that has proven to ward off many unwanted guests. Before you get too excited, though, we’re not talking about keeping your in-laws away from the next family gathering.
So what does it do? Well, an anonymous mom posted the hack to the Hinch Army Cleaning Tips Facebook group. The Hinch Army is a collection of fans who are nuts about Mrs. Hinch – or Sophie Hinchliffe. She’s an Instagrammer who shares hacks on how she keeps her home so impeccable. The advice then caught the imaginations of some of the group’s nearly 445,000 members.
It concerns the summer months of hot states. During this season, you see, it can be tempting to open a window to allow a breeze to circulate your home. But, as we all know, this can be an unwritten invitation for flies to enter your domicile. And while flies are most often just a nuisance, it’s probably better to keep them out of your house – and away from food.
That’s because, in the insect world, house flies are among the most prevalent. Their size is unimposing – generally at less than a third of an inch. But this means that they can get into small nooks, often undetected. And once you know how these bugs live their lives, you may want to try any trick in the book to keep them away.
Yes, the house fly spends its whole life feeding on and breeding in foul matter. This can range from food that’s gone bad through to garbage and excrement. And while they only live for around a month, house flies can do a lot of harm in that relatively short space of time.
Of course, house flies are known to harbor a lot of diseases – and are capable of carrying more than 100 pathogens. These infectious agents can, in fact, pass on ailments and diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, dysentery and typhoid. So it’s understandable that you’d want to keep them away from your home.
This is easier said than done, though. Due to their size, flies can sneak in through cracks or torn fly screens at shocking speed. Leaving doors and windows open, then, can be an invitation for these unwanted house guests to waltz right in. Yet it’s not always so simple to get them to leave. And that’s why people have been searching for effective methods to keep them out of their homes for years.
The anonymous Hinch Army Cleaning Tips poster explained, “After seeing someone post about the water-filled bag and coins to stop the flies I thought I’d give it a try. We normally always have about five or six small flies just flying about in the middle of the kitchen. So annoying.” Yes, it’s enough to drive anyone to distraction.
So the mom gave the hack a try – and she was astonished at the results. She wrote, “Well, since the bag has been up, I haven’t had a single fly in the kitchen! Amazing!” She wasn’t the first to employ the trick – and sing its praises – either. People before her have had similar successes, too.
In 2019, for instance, another mom shared photos of the hack in action. She wrote, “Seen a few posts about flies coming indoors as we’ve [had] all our doors and windows open in this beautiful weather.” She then went on to describe the simple set up that helped her out with unwanted visitors.
As the mom further explained, “A clear bag, half-filled with water with a few copper coins in. Hang [it] above [your] door or open windows.” The result? She said, “Flies hate it! I’ve not had one in days.” Yet this isn’t a local phenomenon. People in Australia use the hack as well.
Of course, Australia in the summer months can be a particularly prevalent time for flies. But, as one Perth-based lady learned, this ingenious method deterred the pests from coming anywhere near the patrons at her friend’s restaurant. And she first became aware of the hack after she’d noticed bags filled with water and coins dotted around the neighborhood.
As she described in a Facebook post, “We sat in the patio section beside the store. We happened to notice zip-lock baggies pinned to a post and a wall. The bags were half-filled with water, each contained four coins, and they were zipped shut. Naturally, we were curious. The owner told us that these baggies kept the flies away naturally.”
Unable to believe it until she and her friends had seen it in action, the woman hung out for a while. And as flies approached the entryway, she saw exactly the effect that the owner had said the device has. The woman recalled, “We actually watched some flies come in the open window, stand around on the windowsill and then fly out again. And there were no flies in the eating area!”
The Australian woman had never heard of the trick before, so she put in some research. She then learned that the technique is known among people who often have to deal with unwanted flies. For instance, the pests can be an issue around the muck of stables – given flies’ fondness for excrement.
As one anonymous person said, “I tried the zip-lock bag and pennies [trick] this weekend. I have a horse trailer. The flies were bad while I was camping. I put the baggies with pennies above the door. Not one fly came into the trailer.” Others had similar experiences when implementing the hack as well.
“I swear by the plastic-bag-of-water trick,” another advocate said. “I have them on the porch and in the basement.” This anonymous exponent had a theory as to why it’s so effective, too. They added, “They say it works because a fly sees a reflection and won’t come around.” But is this the whole truth?
Well, the author of the Mrs. Hinch post later provided an update describing what she learned about the trick. According to the mom, “The water and the pennies create a prism that reflects colors and also projects the image of the water.” And here’s where we get into the physiology of flies.
The author of the post further described, “Flies don’t like water, and they don’t like the colors given off from the pennies. Flies have compound eyes so the bags look like a giant body of water to them. Therefore, they leave.” But what does science have to say about this theory?
Well, according to the Tennessee Farm Bureau, flies have incredibly large eyes proportionate to their overall size. And when pennies are dropped in a bag of water, they appear much bigger than they are. So this might aggravate flies, whose eyes are very sensitive. Why? It’s all about refracted light.
The Tennessee Farm Bureau said, “The fly bases his movement by light. And the refracted light coming through the water in the plastic bag confuses the fly, causing him to move on to a place that is easier on the eyes.” It’s a theory that the Daily Mail’s research supports as well.
According to the Daily Mail’s source, “My research found that the millions of molecules of water presents its own prism effect. And given that flies have a lot of eyes, to them it’s like a zillion disco balls reflecting light, colors and movement in a dizzying manner.” This, in turn, affects flies’ abilities to sense danger.
As the source described, “When you figure that flies are prey for many other bugs, animals, birds, et cetera, they simply won’t take the risk of being around that much-perceived action.” Yet science-entertainment show Mythbusters did some research around the theory, too. And what they found didn’t entirely fit with what some have suggested.
You see, Mythbusters’ Build Team constructed a rig containing three compartments divided by trap doors. One of the chambers contained more than 5,000 flies, another stored rotten meat, while the final one held rotten meat and a bag containing some water. When the flies were released, then, the team observed which of the other compartments they favored.
As the Mythbusters team described to the Daily Mail, “After the chambers were sealed off, they let all the flies die and collected the corpses to weigh for comparison. The chambers with and without the water contained 35 and 20 grams of flies, respectively, busting the myth.” So nothing they learned explained why some people find that the water bag trick works.
After all, some swear by the method. As one advocate described, “I moved to a rural area and thought these ‘hillbillies’ were just yanking my city-boy chain. But I tried it, and it worked immediately! We went from hundreds of flies to seeing the occasional one, but he didn’t hang around long.”
It works for the mom with flies in her kitchen, too. She posted, “Following so many comments, I have no idea how it works or exactly where you’re supposed to put the bag. But all I know is, since I’ve had it in the window, I haven’t had any flies in the kitchen since.”
The trick’s purported success has inspired others to try it themselves. Another Hinch Army Cleaning Tips group member said, “Well, [I] just tried this: two small sandwich bags, water and few coins on [the] back door near to where [the] cat food goes. There were a few flies, but [I’ve] not seen one since. [It’s been] around half an hour. Is this [a] coincidence or magic?”
Some people even applied the trick away from home. One of the hundreds of individuals who liked and commented on the original post said, “My other half took this to another level last year camping.” She shared an image showing several water bags hanging from the doorways of a mini camper van.
The main problem people encounter is that the plastic bags filled with water and coins aren’t especially attractive. But if the idea of the contraptions hanging around your home doesn’t appeal to you, other alternatives are available. Interested parties have suggested placing Venus fly traps around the home, for instance. And others believe that burning incense will do the trick just as well.
One commenter who supports the water-bag tactic also had another ploy to keep pests away. They said, “Blow up a brown paper bag, tie it up and hang it up. This will stop wasps, as they think it’s another wasp nest and stay away – the bag should be medium in size.”
And in case you were wondering, the bag filled with water is incredibly easy to make. Entertainment website Wide Open Country suggests filling a gallon-sized resealable bag to between 50 and 75 percent full and drop a few pennies in. After sealing the bag, it should be placed to hang in doorways or from eaves to deter pests. With anecdotal evidence to support the method, then, it could be a chemical- and cruelty-free alternative to sprays and swatting.
After all, flies can spread bacteria such as E. Coli and salmonella to your food – so it’s a good idea to keep them away. Further good advice is to clean up your yard from pet waste, as that’s a fly-breeding hotspot. It’s also advised to replace lids tightly on garbage cans, which are other spots that flies love.
But what other common features adorn Southern homes? Well, take a tour of the American South, and you’ll no doubt notice that the vast majority of homeowners have painted their porch ceilings and window shutters a particular shade of blue. And if you were to enquire about the name of this color, you’d probably be told that it’s “haint blue.” Yet the history behind the use of this popular shade is likely more sobering – and horrifying – than you’d have initially imagined.
Naturally, many people won’t have given much thought to the color of their porch ceilings or shutters. In fact, it’s possible – and even likely in some cases – that people choose haint blue in order to continue family traditions. And this is a factor that strategic design intelligence director Ellen O’Neill from paint producer Benjamin Moore touched upon when she spoke to Today in 2017.
O’Neill said, “No one would think twice about painting their porch blue, because their grandmother’s and their parents’ [porches] were blue. It’s permeated into porch design.” Color design expert Lori Sawaya also confirmed this to paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams. She said, “Porch ceilings have always been blue in the South.”
Yet the porch-painting tradition had to have started somewhere. And it seems that the origins of painting blue shutters and porches could be rooted in either everyday concerns – or a more shameful shared history. Putting forward a case for the former, then, Sherwin-Williams states that the practice could have started with the Victorians.
The theory goes that the Victorians – or those who lived in the mid- to late-19th century – liked decorating their properties with paints reminiscent of the natural world. So, for instance, your typical Victorian might have applied earthy colors, such as ochre or terracotta, to their home. This would apparently have brought to mind a sense of being outside.
So, the Victorians seemingly chose blue for their porch ceilings for the exact same reason; it would remind them of bright, clear skies – even when the actual weather was miserable. And while O’Neill didn’t namecheck the Victorians specifically, the designer does appear to agree with the general concept.
O’Neill told Today, “A blue sky is an optimistic thing to look at. It reminds us of daybreak; it wards off gloomy weather and delays nightfall. Painting a ceiling blue brings in nature and the sky.” Yet it seems that reminding people of long, summer days is not the only rational reason that one might desire a blue porch ceiling.
According to Colour Affects – and a number of other sources – blue tones usually have a relaxing impact on people. And if this is true, it follows that it would be the ideal color with which to decorate a porch. After all, it wouldn’t do to be feeling stressed out or enraged while sitting out on the stoop trying to enjoy a bit of quiet time.
As we mentioned, blue is the color we associate with a clear sky. So, it can also work as an extension of the natural surroundings. Lori Sawaya told Sherwin-Williams, “Light blues especially lighten and brighten space and propagate any light that you do get, because of the basic nature of color.”
But there’s another practical reason for folks choosing a blue porch ceiling – though it may be more of a myth than actually believed. You see, the theory goes that blue paint will help keep insects at bay during the warmer months. O’Neill said to Today, “If an insect perceives that a ceiling is really the sky, it instinctively wouldn’t nest there.”
O’Neill continued, “It depends how deep you want to go into the brain of an insect… but it’s not unlike how ladybugs will land on a white house. It’s a visual trick.” Other homeowners seemingly believe there’s truth in this theory, too, and they have painted their porch ceilings blue as a consequence. But it’s possible that it’s not 100 percent accurate – at least, not anymore.
Historically, the blue paints used on ceilings were normally “milk paints,” and they often had lye stirred into the mix for good measure. So, it was the lye that typically served to keep bugs away. And as milk paints would often deteriorate with the passage of time, the addition of extra layers of paint every now and then boosted the amount of lye on the ceilings and shutters.
Of course, paint is rarely made with lye these days. Sherwin-Williams’ paints are, for instance, usually mixed with water or oil. In fact, lye is now more likely to be seen in chemical paint remover rather than ready-mixed paint. So, it seems that blue paint’s ability to keep porches bug-free could be something of a legend.
Yet people obviously started painting their porches and shutters blue for a reason. But was it for one of the reasons presented above – or the more sobering explanation we’ll soon explore? Or perhaps it’s because the color is simply adaptable; after all, there’s a blue to fit every kind of household.
In fact, O’Neill told Today that blue will work “regardless of the rest of the paint colors” on a house. The designer explained, “It looks like, ‘Oh, of course, that’s the sky.’” Yet while interior designer Zoe Kyriacos agreed on principle, she argued to Sherwin-Williams that there’s a little more to it than that.
Kyriacos said, “You don’t want [a blue ceiling] to look like an afterthought or like it came out of nowhere. You want to make it look like it was part of the package.” And the color expert had further advice on selecting just the right color for your house as well.
If you’re looking to decorate an older-style home, Kyriacos recommends considering a paler blue. But if your house is more modern, you could be better off selecting a blue with extra attitude. And to mix things up a little, the designer reckons that blues with suggestions of different tints could work well too.
The shade that we’re most interested in, though, is haint blue. This is the subtle, almost turquoise blue that is seemingly favored by southerners – particularly in South Carolina. And the name of this particular shade should offer up a clue to its supposed mythical origin. This in turn will also highlight the more shameful aspects of the color’s history.
You see, the word haint actually refers to a spirit or ghost in southern folklore. But – as you could probably guess – these are not friendly spirits. According to the legends, haints or “boo hags” were unpleasant beings that had somehow liberated themselves from their human hosts.
These dastardly ghosts would then roam the land after nightfall looking to maim or possibly murder anyone who might cross their paths. So, if you believed these stories – as the Gullah people of the South apparently did – it’s understandable that you might want some kind of protection against the evil haints.
So haint blue is supposed to confuse the spirits and therefore keep people safe from harm. But how does it do this? Well, it actually links into some of the factors we discussed earlier – namely that blue can resemble the color of the sky or water.
This particular shade of blue was significant because it was believed that the boo hags were not able to travel through water. It was also thought that the spirits wouldn’t go near the sky because the victims they sought were on the ground. So, by painting ceilings, shutters and even glass bottles this particular hue, people believed that they were being protected.
But while the stories of boo hags might not necessarily be true, the history of haint blue paint is still shocking – and very real. It also has very little to do with supernatural spirits and everything to do with unfathomable hardship. In reality, it all started with indigo plants and a 16-year-old girl named Eliza Lucas.
Indigo dye – an essential component of blue paint – once came predominantly from indigo plants. This was a time long before synthetic indigo could be mass-produced, of course. And in the 18th century the hard-to-get dye from these herbs, trees and shrubs was a sign of affluence.
So, it was a turning point in South Carolinian agricultural history when the young Lucas initially extracted indigo in 1742. This was the moment that the dye was first farmed in the United States, and just five years later, a shipment of the precious material made its way across the Atlantic.
Remember, the American Revolution wouldn’t occur for another 20 years – so at the time the United States was still a British colony. And as indigo was much sought after in Europe, the export of the dye became big business. In fact, at its most successful, over 1.2 million pounds of indigo left the U.S. in a single year, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
Incredibly, Ancestry.com claims that the indigo trade became the second-largest export business in the United States. Those in charge of the cultivation of the dye were therefore earning great wealth. And indigo was being used to create luxurious clothing for Europe’s upper classes. Yet there was one major catch to the large-scale production of the rare dye.
There was no easy way of cultivating the plant, and the process of transforming the plant to dye could take up to 20 hours. This involved labor-intensive, time-consuming methods such as soaking, beating, draining, drying and transporting the goods. It also depended on workers with specialist knowledge.
Where making indigo was such a convoluted process, turning a profit out of trading the product was almost impossible. But in the mid-18th century, wealthy plantation owners would take advantage of their slaves to provide free labor. More specifically, landowners relied on the knowledge and expertise of African slaves.
There was another problem, too. As the demand for indigo increased, so too did the apparent need for slave labor. This led to an influx of African slaves to South Carolina. And according to Ancestry.com, more than half of all slaves landing in America ended up in the state.
Yet it wasn’t just the African slaves who found themselves falling on hard times. The demand for indigo got so great, you see, that plantations eventually started to run out of land. And this resulted in the landowners taking more land from nearby indigenous tribes.
So now the increasing number of slaves found themselves working on ever-expanding territories of land. And, as you might imagine, the slaves had already endured horrifying conditions. The ships used to bring them into the country were typically rife with systematic abuse and disease, after all. Furthermore, a fifth of African slaves in the mid-18th century didn’t even make it off the boat, according to the Black History Month website.
Life on the plantations was likely not much better, either. Louise Miller Cohen, who established the Hilton Head Island Gullah Museum, told Atlas Obscura in January 2020, “If [reparations were] attached to indigo, they would do everything possible to keep the word from ever being mentioned.” The indigo boom, though, would soon come to an end.
The American Revolutionary War took place between 1775 and 1783. And after the conflict ended, the Thirteen Colonies achieved independence and officially founded the United States of America. But the trade of indigo effectively crashed a few years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The United States was no longer beholden to the Brits, after all, and the latter country began to look to India for its indigo needs. So, as quickly as 1802 – just 20 years after the war – the dye wasn’t a factor in South Carolina’s exportation trade. But it would still be another 63 before slavery was abolished – and landowners simply found another trade through which to exploit their workforce.
Those African slaves who first cultivated indigo were the forebears of the Gullah people. And it was their apparent belief in boo rags and haints that seemingly brought the color blue to prominence in the South. So, it’s this group who are also taking strides to reclaim the importance of haint blue.
Heather L. Hodges, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor National Heritage Area’s executive director, told Atlas Obscura, “Indigo dye is deeply rooted in African culture.” She also explained that haint blue “is widely used by Gullah Geechee visual artists and filmmakers as a way of expressing their shared… heritage and history with indigo cultivation.”
For instance, Julie Dash’s acclaimed movie Daughters of the Dust features an indigo theme throughout. It has even been argued that the film’s use of indigo represents the ways in which the characters must interact with their own painful pasts. The picture also happens to be the first from an African-American woman to get distributed across the country.
Both Cohen and Hodges also revealed that they actively worked with the dye to help the locals reconnect with the past. The pair even organized workshops and events around the use of indigo. Cohen told Atlas Obscura, “I’m interested in learning all I can about the crops that caused my people [the] loss of their freedom.”
So the use of haint blue on shutters and porch ceilings throughout South Carolina and beyond is seemingly commonplace. Yet it appears that the history of this shade of blue is far from well known. For the Gullah people and their African ancestors, though, its importance should never be forgotten.