How We Used to Kill Bed Bugs Back in the Day

By Chris Williams on October 12, 2016.

There is documentation to show that bed bugs have pestered us since ancient times. For most of us, bed bugs were extinct pests that our great-grandparents battled. In the early 1900s , it was a rare American indeed who had never been bitten by or at least seen a bed bug. Bed bugs were pretty much gone from the U.S. by about 1950, but began reappearing 50 years later and are now very much with us again.

Bed Bug Treatments Before Modern Insecticides

  • To keep bed bugs from climbing into their beds, folks set the legs of their beds into shallow cans of kerosene, coal oil, or axle grease. They also sprayed their bed frames with kerosene or benzene to kill bed bugs hiding there.
  • Periodically, beds were cleared of their bed bug residents by stripping off the mattress (straw mattresses were burned) and using a candle or plumber’s torch to burn bugs hiding in the springs and the frame. A similar process called for filling cracks in the bed frame with gunpowder and lighting it. Some old timers still remember the acrid stench of roasted bed bugs during spring cleaning.
  • Local druggists supplied arsenic or mercury compounds that were then mixed with water or turpentine and applied to areas of the bed with a feather or brush.
  • A pot of powdered sulfur (then called “brimstone”) and alcohol was placed in the center of the room and set on fire to “fumigate” the room. The process did kill all stages of bed bugs, but it also damaged wallpaper, bleached fabrics, smelled horrible, and sometimes burned the floorboards.

The bed bug treatments above had some basis in fact and no doubt did have some effect on bed bug populations – if they didn’t make the occupant sick. Other bed bug “old wives tales” were passed around and homemade bottled remedies were sold. While some probably swore by these “cures,” there is no scientific basis and no reason to think that these actually worked at all:

  • Pickle a cucumber in water and sprinkle this where you will on the bed.
  • Rub the slats and springs of the bed with grease from salt pork or bacon.
  • Hang the feet of a hare or stag at the foot of the bed.
  • Pour bovine (cattle) gall mixed with vinegar to keep bed bugs away.
  • Rub the bed frame with an ointment made from the drippings of a roasted cat, egg yolks and oil.
  • Hang a bearskin near the bed.

Today’s Integrated Methods Are a Better Choice

Some would say bed bug control isn’t much more effective today. It’s true that bed bugs are resistant to many of the insecticides that we use against them and controlling them is definitely a challenge. For this reason, experts are developing and advocating more nonchemical control methods for bed bugs to supplement insecticide use. Bed bug traps, steam cleaning, heat treatment, specialty vacuuming, and mattress encasements are also part of most professionals’ management programs.

If you know you have bed bugs, or you suspect that you might have bed bugs, give Colonial Pest a call. Our trained technicians know how to find them and how to get rid of them. No “fire and brimstone,” we promise!




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