Itching and scratching: 18th Century Flea Traps

A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret (c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret
(c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Women Bathing by Nicolas Lancret (c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So, you are a grandly dressed Georgian lady, with a fully powdered head of hair, fashionably coiffed but with a few little inhabitants. Scratch, scratch! How would you rid yourself of fleas?

Back in the eighteenth-century fleas were a common problem for all classes and would happily live in beds, inside wigs and on pets, and everyone was prey to them. Bathing of course helped, and there was the tried and tested method of painstakingly searching for and picking off the little critters. The Parisian artist Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), in a couple of his genre paintings, depicted some ladies searching themselves for fleas (and offering the viewer a titillating glimpse of flesh while doing so).

One other way, popular for a short period in the eighteenth-century, was to use a flea-trap which became something of a popular fashion accessory. It consisted of a hollow perforated cylindrical tube, sometimes ornately carved and made of silver or ivory, inside which would be a small rod, tuft of fur or a piece of cloth. This would be smeared with a few drops of blood, to attract the fleas, and also fat, honey resin, designed to make the fleas stick fast to it as they crawled inside, and which was removed as necessary to get rid of them. The flea trap was worn on a ribbon as a necklace, hanging down inside a dress – it could also be placed in a bed to attempt to rid that of fleas. A German doctor named Franz Ernst Brückmann (1697-1753) designed the first flea trap in the early 1700s.

 

Flea - trap Louth museum
Flea trap held at Louth Museum

 

Louth museum in Lincolnshire holds one, although they are unsure of the date of their flea trap. It is made of ivory, with a carved pattern, and measures 7cm in length and 1½cm in width.

 

 

The French name for the flea was ‘la puce’, which is supposedly how we have the name for the colour today – it is taken from the colour of a squashed flea or one full of blood, or from the bloodstains left behind by a flea on the bedsheets.

La Puce. Seated young woman, unveiling her breasts whilst trying to catch a flea. © The Trustees of the British Museum
La Puce. Seated young woman, unveiling her breasts whilst trying to catch a flea. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Reputedly, this brownish purple was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours, and it was Louis XVI who jokingly compared it to the colour of a flea and so named it. From Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, written in 1800 by Isaac D’Israeli (author and father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli):

In the summer of 1775, the queen being dressed, in a brown lutestring, the king good humouredly observed, it was “couleur de puce”, the colour of fleas; and instantly every lady would be drest in a lutestring of a flea colour. The mania was caught by the men; and the dyers in vain exhausted themselves to supply the hourly demand. They distinguished between, an old and a young flea, and they subdivided even the shades of the body of this insect; the belly, the back, the thigh, and the head, were all marked by varying shades of this colour. This prevailing tint promised to be the fashion of the winter. The venders of silk, found that it would he pernicious to their trade; they therefore presented new sattins to her majesty, who having chosen one of a grey ash-colour, Monsieur, exclaimed that it was the colour of her majesty’s hair! Immediately the fleas ceased to be favourites, and all were eager to be drest in the colour of her majesty’s hair. Servants were sent off at the moment from Fontainebleau to Paris, to purchase velvets, rateens and cloths of this colour. The current price in the morning had been forty livres per ell, and it rose towards the evening to the price of eighty to ninety livres.

Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 1778 via the British Library
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 1778 via the British Library

We’ll end with a couple of satirical prints. We think the people in these could do with a flea trap!

© Lewis Walpole Library
© Lewis Walpole Library
© The Trustees of the British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Sources:

Irritating Intimates: The Archaeoentomology of Lice, Fleas, and Bedbugs by Allison Bain

Louth museum and blog

Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, by Isaac D’Israeli

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott is available from Pen and Sword Books (click here to order) and all good bookshops.

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The articles published on All Things Georgian are copyright by their respective authors. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without the authors permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement to the original author. 

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4 thoughts on “Itching and scratching: 18th Century Flea Traps

  1. Funnily enough, when we had a veritable glut of fleas a couple of years back – I have cats – and modern chemical treatments failed, a simple, low tech solution cleared them up with ease. One shallow pan – I used photographic development trays because I have esoteric hobbies, but a roasting tin would work fine – covered in cooking oil and then filled 2/3 full of water, with an upturned shallow jar in the middle on which I lit a tea light or candle. Laid near the sort of furniture fleas like to lurk under, the candle flame attracts them overnight, they jump towards it and drown in the water. The oil deters those near the edge from climbing out. Believe me, the first two nights the surface of the water was black in the mornings. It took a week, and since then, I could count the number of fleas I’ve seen on the fingers of one hand, 3 years on. and yes, I do use proprietary flea, tick, mite and worm killers on my cats too, but I’ve never been so flea free since we first had cats. I wouldn’t rule out the honeytrap working.
    The medieval solution was to put alder leaves in with the strewing herbs on the floor; alder [NOT elder] is a powerful insect repellent.
    I have to say, I must assume the simple water and candle trick must be older than the 21st century when it was first told to me…

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    • Years ago I had a dog who regularly brought hedgehogs into the house during the summer months (we watched him one night, he’d dig a hole next to them and nudge the hedgehog into it – when they were upside down he’d gently pick them up and bring them to us, all proud and with his tail wagging). It’s always the old remedies which are the best!

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      • Good job the foxes round here don’t know that trick, or at least, I’ve had a hedgehog that had to be an indoor hedgehog because a fox tried to pick him up, lost a lot of his spines, but the hedgehog became terrified of being out and wouldn’t come out of his run [he was partially sighted, a rescue hog] and spent the rest of his life in a run indoors

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  2. Good grief, I’m itching just reading this. How interesting that your example comes from Louth museum. My family lives there (in Louth, not the museum) so I’ll have to have a butcher’s next time I’m there.

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