by Paula Bosse
The “mosquito bar” — the human’s defense against blood-thirsty mosquitoes (and other annoying pests) — had its heyday in the US in the second half of the 19th century and the first couple of decades of the 20th century, before window and door screens were commonplace in American homes. They were particularly necessary in the hot and sweaty Southern US states which were routinely plagued with mosquitoes. A typical ad looked like this (click to see larger image):
Mosquito bars were usually employed draped over beds, canopy-style, but the paintings above (1908) and below (1912) — both by John Singer Sargent — show “personal” net-covered armatures, perfect for genteel ladies to relax inside of and read (whilst trying to keep cool despite being weighed down by what must have been uncomfortably heavy clothing).
And here we see more “manly” uses of the mosquito bar — for men/soldiers who liked to be able to smoke their pipes while avoiding mosquital contact. To be worn with or without pith helmet.
Also great for short naps.
The mesh netting or fine muslin used for mosquito bars or to cover windows was generally white or pink, sometimes green (at least in Texas). Once inside the canopied beds, the netting was tucked under the mattress. These bars became fairly standard in hotels and in many homes of the time, but if one could not afford the luxury of sleeping inside one of these things, the sleeper would often resort to rubbing him- or herself with kerosene if they wished to avoid being bitten throughout the night.
As much of a godsend as the bars were, they had their problems. The fine material was easily torn, and sometimes the mesh was so tightly knit that ventilation (and breathing!) was not optimal. Also, it was not unusual for them to catch fire easily, either by being ignited by candles or gas-burning lamps or by smoking inside the canopy (see photo above — keep the lit end OUTSIDE of the net!).
After doors and windows began to be routinely covered with wire screens, the use of mosquito bars in homes and hotels waned, but their use continued in military encampments and hospitals, in recreational camping, and in swampy or tropical areas where the transmission of diseases like malaria and Dengue fever (transmitted by mosquitoes) posed health risks.
Below are a couple of amusing pro-mosquito-net French postcards: the first one shows a man who has bedded down for the night inside his moustiquaire, thumbing his nose at an out-of-luck giant blood-sucker hovering outside the protective net; the second one shows a sort of Gallic version of Goofus and Gallant, with the hapless man who did not sleep under the moustiquaire dejected and covered in ugly welts. Take note, mon frère.
And if you don’t think that the prospect of a night without a mosquito bar (especially in the bayous of Louisiana…) wouldn’t inflame usually calmer heads, here’s a news story from 1910 about a man who shot a co-worker three times at close range because of a heated argument over which of them owned a mosquito bar. And this was in February! Lordy. Talk about your crime of passion. The moral of this story: do not mess with another man’s mosquito bar.
I had never heard the term “mosquito bar” before seeing the Sargent painting at the top, and I’m surprised to see that it continues to be a term used today. Mosquito bars seem to be used most often in the United States in camping equipment and in the manufacture of baby cribs, such as this portable crib from 1950 — just zip that kid in and save yourself some kerosene!
Sources & Notes
The top painting by John Singer Sargent — titled “Mosquito Nets” (1908) — is from the Detroit Institute of Arts; more on the painting can be found here.
The second Sargent painting is from the White House Collection; more on this painting here.
Photo of draped bed is from the “Mosquito Net” Wikipedia page, here.
The photos of men with mosquito netting on their heads and the French cards were found here (this page has tons of mosquito-net photos).
Sources of other images and clippings as noted.
Most images are larger when clicked.
Copyright © 2017 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.