"History is repeating itself," says Michael Potter, an entomologist from the University of Kentucky and a leading bedbug expert. Before the widespread use of DDT, he notes, many American homes were crawling with the bugs. U.S. News wondered exactly what a bedbug-infested America would look like, so we leafed through archives of old news reports. The battle against these bugs, it turns out, has been lengthy. What follows is a sampling of the nearly countless references in major American dailies to what a Washington Post reporter called "that horrid and caddish little cimex[sic] lectularius."
• In 1923, the Department of Agriculture was in the market for bedbugs. A New York Times classified ad dated July 12 reads: "WANTED 1,200 BED BUGS." The feds, apparently, wanted the bugs to test out new insecticides at an experimental station in Vienna, Va., and were willing to pay one penny per bug. They got what they wanted. And more. Way more. On July 25, the same newspaper ran a story under the headline "Department Wanted 1,200 Bedbugs; They're Still Arriving by Thousands." According to the article, one man alone had sent in 12,000 of the critters. He also included a waggish letter stating that, if he hadn't provided enough already, he would send along his entire hotel.
• Proof that the American penchant for litigiousness isn't a new phenomenon: According to a Washington Post article dated April 11, 1930, a woman from Washington, D.C., sued her landlord for $500 after finding bedbugs in her furnished rental apartment. "Mrs. Lewis charges that she was unable to occupy the apartment because it was 'intolerably infected with bedbugs' and that she was compelled to sit up all night in a chair," according to the article.
• Bedbug poison can kill more than insects, as was made painfully clear in a short item in the New York Times in 1879. "SUICIDE WITH BEDBUG POISON," reads the headline. The article tells the unfortunate tale of a Mr. Orrin Lamkin and his wife, who were having trouble raising enough money to pay their mortgage. Mrs. Lamkin, it appears, had lost the couple's money in Detroit, where she'd made an ill-advised trip with a man by the name of David Lake, who took the money and abandoned her. After confessing all to her husband, Mrs. Lamkin "seized a bottle of bed-bug poison and drank a portion of its contents. She now lies at the point of death," the article explained.
• Wondering how they killed bedbugs in 1914? A Detroit Free Press writer explained the following in an article from that year: "Some persons use benzine[sic], kerosene, corrosive sublimate, sulphur[sic] or pyrethrum to discourage the bedbugaccording to highly credible information. Others place the bug on an anvil and tap it on the spine a few times with a hammer. This last method, while having the merit of certainty, has the demerit of slowness."