People vs. clothing moths: A brief history

By Dr. Killigan
People vs. clothing moths: A brief history

Fervent, ardent study engrossed me. Long-form text—black, underlined, circled, and starred—has been my sole companion since sunrise three mornings past. Yet I had promised myself that I would read, for pleasure, each evening before bed.

The soft glow of the beige ceramic lamp provided the perfect lighting. My text of choice that evening was Coriolanus, a tragedy by William Shakespeare about the Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus.

In the play, Shakespeare writes, "All the yarn which Penelope spun in Ulysses' absence, did but fill Ithaca with moths."

Despite my reading preferences, insects still find a way to find me. With a nod to Shakespeare and other legendary writers, let's take a look at the history of clothing moths.

What is the origin of the moth? Where did moths come from?

Historically known as motthe (in Middle English), motte (in Dutch), and even maggot (in Old English), clothing moths—including the web-spinning clothes moth (Tineloa bisselliella) and case-bearing clothes moth (Tinea pellionella)—have been around for ages. Up until the middle of the 16th century, the word was used mostly in reference to the larvae and its devouring of woolen fabrics. In the 8th century BC, Homer referenced moths in his famous work, The Illiad. Even biblical scriptures that date back to the first century mention these miscreants.

Centuries ago, how did people deal with moth infestations?

In The Iliad, Homer writes that the last king of Troy, Priam, had a cedar chest of his own: Priam "...went in person down to the sweet-smelling vaulted storage chamber lined with cedar, which held many of his treasures."

Cedar remains a significant weapon in the ongoing battle against moths. Over the centuries, cedar wood was used by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. The Phoenicians used the Cedars for their merchant fleets, as they needed timbers for their ships and the cedar woods made them the "first sea trading nation in the world." More recently, indigenous peoples of the Americas used the wood of cedar for an abundance of basic materials: boxes, utensils, instruments, shelter (homes) and transportation (canoes). Additionally, they used the roots of cedar trees for baskets, bowls, and ropes, and also used its bark for clothing and blankets.

    When were moth balls invented?

    Mothballs weren’t officially invented until 1948, though chemists were already at work experimenting with purified coal and the odiferous, unpleasant properties that distinguish this white, waxy, solid substance in the early 1800s. A chemist named John Kidd was responsible for standardized production of this chemical, (today known as naphthalene) though it was Michael Faraday, the famous scientist of the day and godfather of modern electromagnetic theory, who established its notoriety in the scientific community.

    It was quickly discovered, though, that naphthalene was highly flammable. Thus, a second active ingredient in mothballs was popularized: paradichlorobenzene. However, this chemical generated toxic vapors similar to naphthalene (but wasn’t as flammable) making this dangerous, poisonous pesticide effective, yet very harmful, especially to breathe.

    Today, mothballs are still commonly made from either naphthalene or para-dichlorobenzene, both of which are noxious to humans, pets, and wildlife.

    Why were mothballs popular? Why did people use them?

    Until the late 1900s, most homes lacked central heating and cooling systems. In fact, many homes lacked window screens. This meant long, hot summer nights with the windows wide open. The result was an ongoing battle with staggering numbers of insects flying through your home, from mosquitoes and flies to moths. The simple solution was the use of mothballs—cheap, readily available, and most likely found at the neighborhood convenience store. In place of a sweltering home with closed windows, mothballs were a very palatable solution. It makes sense, and I can assure you that several decades ago, the average person was not fully aware of their harmful effects.

    A second reason that mothballs were popular was because closets had in them a lot more natural fibers, especially wool. Today, if you look at the white, durable, shiny-finish tag of the garment you’re wearing (which is probably made of the synthetic fabric acetate satin), it’s most likely blended with a synthetic material, whether this be rayon, acrylic, nylon, or polyester. Just adding a percent or two of artificial fabric to a piece of natural-fiber clothing is enough to repel moths. Not only are the synthetic fibers lacking in nutritional value, but they can also disrupt the moths’ reproductive cycle and sometimes even hinder their ability to both lay and fertilize eggs.

    How do we deal with clothing moths today?

    There are two primary means of dealing with clothing moths today. One is preventative and one is reactive. As a preventative measure, I recommend the use of cedar. In addition to clothing moths, cedar protects against other fabric-eating insects such as termites, cockroaches, carpet beetles, crickets, silverfish, and firebrats. If you inherited a cedar chest as a family heirloom, I encourage you to keep all of your keratin-rich clothes folded safely away in there. As a reactive measure, there is nothing better to get rid of clothing moths than my killer clothing moth traps.

    These traps: 

    • Are non-toxic
    • Have no pyrethrins or other harsh ingredients
    • Are powered by a doubly potent formula—a perfectly blended pheromone attractant and glue combination
    • Come equipped with Dr. Killigan’s 100% satisfaction guarantee

    Once opened, these traps are good for three months. Unopened, they are good for three years from the date of manufacture.

    Purchase a 6 Pack of my Premium Clothing Moth Traps today, place one in your closet, and keep those clothing moths from gaining a foothold. Together, let’s keep those treasures of clothing hole-free.


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