Cimex lecularius is a blood-sucking insect which plagued the domestic house for centuries. Well established by the 16th Century, they were widespread by 1730 and an obvious hazard for overnight travelers. Quite flat, they were able to live in the tiniest cracks in bedroom furniture or panelling, but when fed with blood they swelled. They loved to lay eggs in wallpaper paste.
Canny creatures, they would allow you time to go to sleep before attacking, but then nothing would distract them, attacking around the head, face and neck. One did not feel their bite but woke to a painful swelling like nettlerash which could develop like boils.
The experienced traveler of inns refused to sleep on a bed, preferring two tables with a sheet placed over them.
Bed bugs did not respect persons of class and entered even the most aristocratic household along with second-hand furniture or servants. Many of the houses built in the London squares – Hanover and Grosvenor – were infested with bedbugs even before they were first occupied. They loved carved four-poster bedheads and feather and wool mattresses, which could be crawling with them even when new.
Thomas Carlysle’s wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle wrote in her journal of her encounters with bedbugs … “I flung some twenty pailfuls of water on the kitchen floor … to drown any that might attempt to save themselves, then we killed all that were discoverable, and flung the pieces of the bed … into a tub full of water, carried them up into the garden, and let them steep there for two days; and then I painted all the joints, had the curtains washed … and hope and trust there is not one escaped alive to tell the tale. Ach Gott, what disgusting work to have to do!
Many remedies were tried: Washing or cooking the contents of mattresses three or four times a year, setting wicker bug traps under the bed, anointing the bed with infusions of various herbs or with mercury mixed with egg white, or fumigation with sulphur or arsenic.
In 1814, a professional bug catcher, Mr. Tiffin, advertising himself as ‘bug-destroyer to Her Majesty’ and claimed “I have noblemen’s names, the first in England, on my books”.
Manuals for housemaids were to dismantle bedsteads, scrub the frame and pour boiling water into the joints. Many recipes were available: In 1830 The Servant’s Guide recommended brushing the bedstead with petroleum oil the smell of which would drive the bugs away – thankfully, it did warn the servant not to do this by candlelight!
And apparently, they live among us today.
Maggi Andersen: http://www.maggiandersenauthor.com
The Reluctant Marquess available from Amazon
Research: The Country House Servant, Pamela A. Sambrook. Sutton Publishing.