Back in the 18th century fleas were a common problem for all classes and would gladly live in beds, inside wigs, on pets and everyone was prey to them. You would probably have had a fully powdered head of hair, fashionably coiffed with a few little inhabitants
How would you get rid of the fleas?
Bathing of course helped and there was the tried and tested method of painstakingly searching for and picking off the little critters. One other way that was 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 was 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, along with fat and/or 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.
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.
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.
The flea traps, in the Whitby Museum’s collection, are made of ivory and have a green banding decorations. They were donated to the museum by a Mrs Gregson.