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What My Dad Said About Bedbugs, You Pantywaists

Posted: October 19th, 2010 | Author: | | 11 Comments »

Here’s a story from my dad. He lived at 18th St and 5th Avenue at the time mentioned in the anecdote, so basically Park Slope.

Bedbugs, you say. What’s all the fuss? I was born in 1932, the very low point of the depression, and my folks lived on the third floor of a three story wooden frame house. We had a “cold water flat” on the third floor. The flat had no hot water, no heating system, other than a big old kitchen cast iron stove that my dad had converted to kerosene heating, and the communal toilette was down the hall and had no bathtub. Our home, never featured in Homes & Garden, was nonetheless not atypical. There were tons of flats like that in Brooklyn and through America at that time. As you can imagine, personal hygiene, baths, and daily underwear changes were not top-of-the-list priorities in the daily battle of holding body and soul together. Yet, somehow we survived.

Troubles always come in bunches. Rickets, goiters [ed.- really?], tuberculosis, etc. abounded, while, the then fatal, diphtheria and pneumonia raged in the winter time. Added to these were the scourge of roaches and bedbugs which added a note of interest to daily living. I was about four years old, but I can remember well my mother spraying the metal bed springs with a flit gun. This was a metal tube with a hand operated piston that pushed air into a sort of soup can fixed to the end of the tube, and produced an atomized spray. The can was filled with an insecticide, or in a pinch, kerosene, which was applied liberally and frantically to the little blighters. We pumped like the dickens in our unrelenting onslaught of this puzzling gift of God to man. Success was fleeting in our efforts at exterminating, because of their ubiquitous occurrence , so that the spraying became a weekly ritual among the fastidious. But laughing and scratching, here I am.

The flit gun, mentioned above, is an interesting bit of Americana, in that its name sprung from an advertising slogan: “Quick, Henry, the Flit”. Flit was the name of a commercial insecticide used in shooting down flies and mosquitoes. Oddly enough, the slogan, and accompanying art work, was the creation of Theodore Seuss Geisel who, years later, produced the enormously successful Dr. Seuss kiddie books.

Here is an image obtained by googling the slogan:

Quick, Henry, the Flit

Another measure of the difference in the impoverished (previous) depression times and our current opulent throw-away society is apparent in that when bedbugs were encountered, the afflicted beds, dressers, chairs, sofas, clothes, etc. were not placed out on the curb for the garbage collection, but were throughly spayed, scraped, or washed to remove the bedbugs and their egg-encased progeny. Stuff was hard to come by in those days.

11 Comments on “What My Dad Said About Bedbugs, You Pantywaists”

  1. 1 HJM said at 5:32 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    Wow, it is impossible to imagine a people not traumatized by the beasties and their nightbites. I guess you were too happy not dying? Also, now that you mention it, half of our anguish comes from how to salvage all our precious STUFF.

    I thought a “flit” was a prostitute.

  2. 2 Celine said at 5:34 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    But…they still kept you awake at night, no? Was this not maddening?

  3. 3 Buster Brown said at 5:37 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    Were bedbugs just for poor people back then? I realize this means most people during the depression. It’s just that the notion still persists that bedbugs belong to the lower classes. How did that shake out in olden times?

  4. 4 HBK said at 5:42 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    @HJM: It takes one to know one, heheh!

    Not having stuff certainly does make it easier to treat. Do they really want to hang out on a soap doll and a pig’s bladder balloon anyway?

  5. 5 HBK said at 5:46 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    How did people treat bites then? Did anyone ever look positively eaten alive and get shunned for it? Which would be a bigger deal, roaches or bedbugs?

  6. 6 WK said at 7:30 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    to HJM
    Traumatized. We couldn’t even spell it, and if we could have, we wouldn’t have known what it meant. TV hadn’t fried everyones brain at that time.
    Flit: a prostitute? Sounds french. Never heard that reference before. Among the scottish, a flit was a moving, i.e. a change of your digs. A moonlight flit was to move out late at night to avoid paying back rent.

  7. 7 WK said at 7:36 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    to Celine
    Certainly BB bites would be felt and maybe
    awakened one. However, once they were detected, the spraying, scraping, and boiling began immediately the next day. Thereafter,
    it was a case of diminish returns for the BBs,
    as their numbers steadily diminished.

  8. 8 wk said at 7:44 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    to BusterBrown
    BBs were the curse of the poor, but the rich didn’t escape unscathed, because as the general BB population increased, the BBs spread everywhere. The recent infestations at the posh NYC hotels bears this out. The same was true during the black plagues , circa 1660, in europe. The rich died in lesser numbers, but they died nonetheless.

  9. 9 wk said at 7:52 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    to HBK
    Don’t know what the bite treatment was,
    possibly an application of Witch Hazel.
    I imagine a person with a profusion of BB bites was shunned, but in a darkened movie theater,
    all bodies looked a like, and all seats were potential BB nesting places.

  10. 10 WK said at 7:58 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    to HBK
    Roaches or BBs worse? BBs were probably a
    greater scratch on the butt. Roaches were not directly a threat to the body, but were much more prevalent. In either case, you learned to keep your mouth shut when sleeping, as is the case when shoveling manure.

  11. 11 Nix Bedbugs » Blog Archive » ‘Tis the Season for Murder said at 3:24 pm on December 19th, 2010:

    […] tip for the link to my dad, who apparently still holds a grudge against bedbugs. […]

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