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Pests in the City

Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats

by Dawn Day Biehler

Publication Year: 2013

From tenements to alleyways to latrines, twentieth-century American cities created spaces where pests flourished and people struggled for healthy living conditions. In Pests in the City, Dawn Day Biehler argues that the urban ecologies that supported pests were shaped not only by the physical features of cities but also by social inequalities, housing policies, and ideas about domestic space.

Published by: University of Washington Press


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p. 1-1

About the Series, Frontispiece, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-6


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pp. vi-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

Ask many people what first occurs to them when they think of wild nature, and their most likely answers will sound pretty familiar. They conjure images of sublime landscapes, of Yosemite or the Everglades, Everest or the Serengeti. If they favor humbler embodiments of the wild, they may name a local park or woods or wetland where they watch birds or hike or fish or hunt deer. ...

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pp. xv-xviii

It is a humbling task to try to understand how tiny creatures persist in our homes and cities. I am humbled anew as I think of the people whose wisdom, patience, generosity, and love have supported me through this task, and to whom I owe many debts of gratitude. ...

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Introduction: History, Ecology, and the Politics of Pests

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pp. 3-12

Dr. Arthur Corwin’s poem “Clean Up” and the traditional bedtime rhyme about bedbugs evoke two very different facets of life with pests. Parents uttered the latter while tucking their children into bed, hoping to ward off a menace that attacked in people’s most private moments. ...

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Part One: The Promise of Modern Pest Control

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pp. 13-15

Many urban homes and neighborhoods in the first half of the twentieth century teemed with pests. During surveys of Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1908, entomologists sometimes caught over two thousand houseflies with a single sheet of flypaper hung for two days in a residential area. ...

Image Plates 1

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pp. 16-26

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1. Flies: Agents of Interconnection in Progressive Era Cities

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pp. 27-54

As temperatures climbed into the nineties in June 1900, a female Musca domestica buzzed about a small stable in southeastern Washington, D.C. She alit upon a heap of horse manure inside an old wooden bin and deposited 120 eggs under a lump of dung. The young maggots emerged twenty-four hours later and then ate their way into the dung heap for four days. ...

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2. Bedbugs: Creatures of Community in Modernizing Cities

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pp. 55-82

Hundreds of Cimex lectularius rested throughout a long summer day in 1920 in a flat on Chicago’s West Side. Most huddled together on the narrow wooden bed frame on the lodger’s side of the flat’s single bedroom. Some hid in grooves in a chest below the foot of the bed, others under peeling wallpaper or behind a framed picture, leaving a blotchy crust of feces and egg cases. ...

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3. German Cockroaches: Permeable Homes in the Postwar Era

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pp. 83-110

On the dry goods shelf at the market, a Blattella germanica left a sticky ootheca, one of eight she would lay in her lifetime, clinging to a sack of rice. The shopper did not see the purse-shaped egg case, smaller than a pea, as she lifted the sack from the shelf, nor did she see it later while packing her groceries. ...

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4. Norway Rats: Back-Alley Ecology in the Chemical Age

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pp. 111-138

A Norway rat emerged from his burrow as dusk fell over Baltimore’s east side on an early spring evening in 1937. The air carried a faint scent of food, as well as scents of people, dogs, and cats. The high-board wooden fence surrounding the backyard provided reliable shelter from these minor threats despite its ramshackle condition—perhaps because of it. ...

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Part Two: Persistence and Resistance in the Age of Ecology

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring decried the hubris of modern pest control, which attempted to remove pests from environments ideally suited to them. Instead of submitting to humans’ will, nature both suffered and struck back: wildlife perished, people became sick, and pests evolved resistance to pesticides. ...

Image Plates 2

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pp. 141-148

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5. The Ecology of Injustice: Rats in the Civil Rights Era

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pp. 149-176

In the melodramatic first scene of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, Bigger Thomas’s day begins with a fight against a “huge black rat” in his family’s “tiny, one-room apartment.”1 His mother and sister huddle on a bed, screaming and “gaz[ing] open-mouthed at the trunk in the corner,” where the rat last appeared. ...

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6. Integrating Urban Homes: Cockroaches and Survival

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pp. 177-204

In the essay “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” Audre Lorde recalled sitting down next to a white woman on a crowded subway train as a small child in the late 1930s. The woman “jerk[ed] her coat closer to her” with a look of horror on her face, and the young Audre assumed that there was something disgusting on the seat, ...

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Epilogue: The Persistence and Resurgence of Bedbugs

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pp. 205-216

Beginning in the late 1990s, a growing number of households and businesses—all along the income spectrum—suffered with infestations of bedbugs.1 Only the oldest pest-management professionals could recall the days when, as George Hockenyos described in 1940, bedbug jobs were one of the most common services their firms performed in urban homes.2 ...


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pp. 217-278

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 279-308


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pp. 309-338

Other Works in the Series

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pp. 358-361

E-ISBN-13: 9780295804866
E-ISBN-10: 0295804866
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295993010
Print-ISBN-10: 0295993014

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2013