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Anecdotes from the Archive: Bed bugs are vintage, and vintage is in

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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According to the June 1924 issue, bed bugs weren’t always considered to be a pest worthy of professional extermination. It wasn’t until scientists warned the bugs were “dangerous” for having the potential to spread diseases such as typhoid fever and influenza that the little guys were able to produce feelings of fear and despair in city-dwellers.

"Today [1924], not even nice people escape the bed bug. He may turn up in the most carefully kept homes. His presence is not a reproach, but a danger signal."

People, nice or otherwise, demanded the extermination of bed bugs using the most potent way they knew how—poison gas. While this proved a solution to getting rid of the bugs, it had some grave consequences:

"In the fumigation of homes, business premises, and ships, people are occasionally killed accidentally—occupants not known to be in the infested area, or sometimes adjoining premises, and even exterminators caught off guard."

Thankfully, we no longer have to choose between typhoid fever and death when it comes to bed bugs…at least I would assume so because the guy who came to spray chemicals in my apartment (yes, it’s true, even nice people like me can’t escape them) did not look at all like this:



About the Author: Mary Karmelek is a production assistant for Nature Publishing Group and is currently working on Scientific American‘s Digital Archive Project, where she spends countless hours scouring articles and ads of decades long ago. She graduated with her M.A. in English from Fordham University in 2010 and currently resides in New York City. While her educational background is in gender and war trauma in modernist literature, Mary also has a keen interest in the historical and visual documentation of science, nature, and medicine.

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 9:56 am 01/11/2011

    Bedbugs are not demons that you would need a priest to exercise from your home. Place a couple of insect repellent plants in your bedrooms and the bedbugs will leave.

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  2. 2. Soccerdad 10:12 am 01/11/2011

    Unfortunately we have safe and effective pesticides that would advance the state of bedbug infestation beyond the 1920′s, but EPA has decided to go along with the alarmists and ban them. So, we have reverted to needless bedbug infestations.

    Next thing you know, people will be scared to get vaccinated due to some unproven fear, and many preventable diseases will make a comeback. Oh, wait, that’s already happened.

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  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 11:18 am 01/11/2011

    The beauty and usefulness of knowing one’s history is to see how much science has improved our understanding of the world. Reading, for example in this clip from the Archives, how bad bugs were regarded and treated in 1924, and comparing that to today’s world is quite enlightening.

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  4. 4. xrower 1:22 pm 01/11/2011

    I agree we need to bring the proven pesticides back. On another note; if people like Gore study history, he & others would realize that climate cges. have been w/us since the formation of the Earth.
    Keep up the GOOD work, Mary. Your grt. Aunt & Uncle; Sue & Dennis….Smyrna GA

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  5. 5. bucketofsquid 1:50 pm 01/12/2011

    Interesting but I would like to see a bit more content. I know it is only a blog but I know little about bedbugs and why people don’t like them. Other than a three line nursery rhyme telling me that they bite they haven’t really crossed my mind before this. Are they more dangerous than fleas, ticks and ‘skeeters?

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  6. 6. Bora Zivkovic 5:56 pm 01/12/2011

    Well, it is not "just a blog" but specifically a blog about the Archives. This is from a 1926 story (just like the popular "150, 100, 50 years ago" feature). SciAm has published and will again publish more current stories on bedbugs for comparison.

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  7. 7. TConnor 5:55 am 01/18/2011

    Bed Bugs are obviuosly back again and they are extremely nasty. They can make your life quite unpleasant- believe me, I know what I am talking about. And it´s pretty hard to get rid of them.
    Guys, science never sleeps! I got some interesting news for you: there is a very innovative protection against these creepy crawlers. I got myslef this protective "bedbugs-free sheet" last October it works perferctly. It´s a German product. I am travelling for work a lot and sleep in different hotels accross the US- never got a bite!You find it on

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  8. 8. BenLn 8:11 am 05/28/2011

    The first time I learned the danger of these pests was two years ago when I visited DC. A friend warned me of cleaning up my clothes before I went back to my home. He said if you brought one bedbug back to your home, your nightmare started…

    I wonder why the article talks so little about how to detect the insect. Is there some effective way to find them?

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