The “Croton bug” infests 19th century New York

They began appearing in New York City in large numbers in the 1840s, and newspapers described them as “miserable pests,” the products of “slovenly housekeepers,” and “filthy and destructive insects.”

“Never in all New York’s history has such a plague of vermin visited us,” wrote an anonymous “apartment dweller” in The New York Times in 1921.

What was this hated creature?

The common house cockroach, which was dubbed the “Croton bug” and known by that misnomer throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The name comes from the Croton Aqueduct, which opened in 1842 (above, a celebration in City Hall Park) and brought fresh water from upstate to New York City residents.

The appearance of  these roaches (technically known as German cockroaches) in the city coincided with the advent of the Croton water system—leading New Yorkers to associate the bugs with Croton and blame the system for infesting Gotham.

The Croton aqueduct itself wasn’t to blame, but the water pipes installed in many homes to access the water was.

“The new water system not only supplied New York with cheap and abundant water, it also provided the cockroach with warm water pipes that were dank, dark conduits from apartment kitchen to apartment kitchen,” wrote John Leland in Aliens in the Backyard.

With Croton bugs popping up in kitchens across the city, efforts to get rid of them were introduced. Ads for poisons and powders filled newspapers. One doctor even advised that “stale beer” could kill them, as it’s “the cockroach’s favorite drink.”

Guides for housekeepers were also published. “Use pulverized borax, which they do not like,” one 1903 manual for servants advised. “Sprinkle it into their haunts, especially under and around sinks and stationary washstands.”

This manual went on to describe them “like Noah’s weary dove, seeking human companionship, or perhaps, still more like another scriptural type, going to and fro and walking up and down seeking something to devour….They do not leave town for the heated term.”

No, roaches don’t leave for the heated term, aka summer…in fact they apparently don’t leave New York at all, considering how many city residents still deal with them.

Perhaps changing their name back to “Croton bugs” will make them more endearing?

[Top image: science text 1915; second image: New York Daily Herald, 1852; third image: MCNY 0.13.4.154; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1908; fifth image: Evening World]

Tags: , , , , ,

11 Responses to “The “Croton bug” infests 19th century New York”

  1. Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

    Fabulous!

  2. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Yikes, did I battle them in various NYC apartments! Was a losing battle for certain. I still squirm, grit my teeth, say, “Ugh!” and swat them with whatever I got!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’ve been lucky not to have encountered these indoors. The big waterbugs, however, that’s another story. Terror. Nightmares.

  3. cj Says:

    I once saw a guy walk past a cockroach on the sidewalk in nyc. He took a few more steps, stopped, turned around and came back and angrily squashed it with his shoe. It was the funniest thing ever. Probably because I didn’t have to deal with them too much luckily.

  4. Lady G. Says:

    I’ve seen horrible infestations in my NY lifetime and it still makes me cringe. Now that I moved to Florida it’s not so bad at all. An occasional Palmetto is a terror though, once had 2 on my wall and have no idea how they snuck in. lol

  5. petlover1948 Says:

    the worst phobia of mine

  6. Banchee Says:

    Ooh, my dear! many poor things we humans detest, like these small bugs. Why should it be? Such a shame.

  7. Timothy Grier Says:

    I don’t know if it’s still a thing but when I lived in a roach infested apartment in Little Italy in the 70s it was not uncommon for NYers to have roach eating lizards as pets roaming their apartments.

  8. countrypaul Says:

    There’s even a New York “classic” doo-wop record: “Roaches” by The Court Jesters (Blast Records, 1961): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3tEvFVn5Ks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: