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1900's Steam Heating Systems

I have read in a local history book (mining towns in Colorado) that around 1900, those who put in steam heat were more likely to have bedbugs than those who kept their old coal stoves. The authors attributed this to increased humidity from the steam system, which the bedbugs apparently liked. I am a fiction writer, not a HVAC expert. But it seems to me that steam heating systems are enclosed, so that steam/humidity doesn't escape. Am I missing something? Were there differnt kinds of steam heat back then? I am trying to set up a fictional scene correctly. Thank you to anyone who can help!

Re: 1900's Steam Heating Systems

One has nothing to do with the other. Bed bugs don't care too much about humidity. Sounds like someone was making a scientific guess long before the science existed. Back then there were a lot of goofy ideas about health.

Re: 1900's Steam Heating Systems

One of the fool proof ways to get rid of bed bugs or cockroaches in Canada is to turn the heat off in winter for a couple of days. Therefore i assume that in colorado that if you let the house freeze it would get rid of bed bugs too.

Molly Pitcher
Re: 1900's Steam Heating Systems


I can't verify the connection between steam heat and an increased prevalence of bedbugs in the Old West---buildings so heated were perhaps more likely to have higher temps because of increased convectors (rads) & some hot steam that DOES escape thru the rad air vents during the initial fire-up stage of the single-pipe steam-heating process, but I don't know if this made bedbugs more prevalent around steam heating; in most steam heating systems (single-pipe) the boiler in the "boiler room" heats the water to a boiling temp producing steam, which is then conducted thru steel pipes (mains) to the radiators (rads), pushing all air present in the pipes out the radiators thru the rad vent; inside the rad vent (sitting on the outside of the rad) is a little air-filled metal bellows; when the hot steam hits the bellows, it expands & closes the vent to prevent most of the steam from escaping into the room; the cast iron rad becomes very hot in the process (212 degrees F) & heats the room.

It's my understanding from the 1st article below that bedbugs prefer humans as a host because they can easily attach themselves to clothing, knapsacks, & especially sheets, pillows, blankets & upholstered furniture & also because blood from their host is the only thing they feed on; therefore, visiting guests (which were very common in mining towns) who used the furniture would easily infect the bedding, especially during overnight stays; once infested, it was quite difficult to rid the house of the infestation, lacking the delousants available today.

The 'history'/'20th century' sections of the 1st article below does mention improved heating and warmer houses with electricity (& perhaps steam) allowed bedbugs to thrive indoors year 'round instead of just the warm summer months, so Shack in the post above may have a point.

In the 'Physical' section of the 1st article below, they mention that bedbugs can survive a cold 13 degrees F for only 5 days & die almost immediately at a cold -26 degrees (which would be hard to accomplish in normal circumstances).

You might find the 2nd article below interesting; it documents the absolutely appalling backward state of medical knowledge & practice that existed in the U.S. even into the early part of the 20th century; the lack of medical knowledge & service in the western part of the U.S. was particularly bad.


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