Victorian Vermin

I got the following extracts from Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003).

As we’ve talked about before, the Victorian era had a really difficult time with hygiene, especially if you lived in a city. Things were generally dirtier than we’re used to today and it was a hell of a lot of work (requiring a lot of servants) to stay on top of it all.

This doesn’t even take into account the problems of vermin. Poor Jane Carlyle, wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, seemed to have a mortal dread of bedbugs. “When Thomas and Jane Carlyle moved into the Cheyne Row house in 1834, Jane claimed that hers was the only house ‘among all my acquaintances’ that could boast of having no bugs. For a decade all was well. Then in 1843 bugs were found in the servant’s bed in the kitchen:

“‘I flung some twenty pailfuls of water on the kitchen floor, in the first place to drown any that might attempt to save themselves; when we killed all that were discoverable, and flung the pieces of the bed, one after another, 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 [with disinfectant], had the curtains washed and laid by for the present, and hope and trust that there is not one escaped alive to tell. Ach Gott, what a disgusting work to have to do! – but the destroying of bugs is a thing that cannot be neglected.’

“Ten years later she gave up that particular war: when the servant’s bed was again found to be swarming, she sold the old wooden bed and bought an iron one” (13).

And it wasn’t just bedbugs. Oh, no. That would not be nearly disgusting enough. “Our Homes suggested keeping a hedgehog to eat the insects; others were scornful of this – the amount a hedgehog ate could not begin to affect the living carpet that Beatrix Potter’s servants found at her grandmother’s house when they visited in the summer of 1886: the first night they were there, the maids had to sit on the kitchen table, as the floor heaved with cockroaches” (76).

There was actually a huge rise in bug populations in cities during the eighteenth century that continued into the nineteenth. Flanders speculates in the book that it probably has to do with rapid urbanization–you had thousands of people from all over come into the city, many of them very poor and unable to afford spacious housing or the servants necessary to combat things like bedbugs. In order to get rid of a lot of infestations, you required not only the ability to air out your home, but also the time, space, and energy to vigorously wash your bedding, clothing, and own person. The average working-class person was not going to have Jane Carlyle’s time and help in flooding a kitchen with twenty buckets of water or letting bedsteads soak in chemical solutions for days on end. Working-class people probably just learned to tolerate them as best they could, while, for the middle and upper classes, it became something of a moral crusade. There was a lot of “cleanliness is next to godliness” rhetoric being thrown around in household manuals at this time and, my god, the middle classes didn’t half take that to heart.

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One Response to Victorian Vermin

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 4 Years | BizarreVictoria

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