• Weird History

What It Was Like To Live Through The 'Spanish Flu' Pandemic Of 1918-1919

In 1918 and 1919, the world took on a new, invisible enemy: the so-called "Spanish flu" pandemic sweeping the globe. The pandemic left tens of millions of casualties in its wake as it devastated one community after another. Given the scale of the disease, what was it like to live through the influenza pandemic?

A particularly aggressive strain of influenza began infecting WWI troops in 1918. Though there isn't a consensus on where it came from, it's likely the strain originated in Kansas and spread to the rest of the world via troop movements.

The Spanish flu 1918 mortality rate differed from city to city, depending on the measures each community took to deal with the outbreak. Ultimately, more people perished in this pandemic than in WWI. In the United States alone, around 600,000 lives were claimed.

But the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919, even after it ended, wasn't just a medical catastrophe - it was also a lived experience. Most people knew at least someone who caught the flu. The epidemic impacted everyday life for Americans, many of whom felt anxious, horrified, and uneasy about the events unfolding before them. These private feelings did not stop them from the mass mobilization required to combat the epidemic, however. Whether stifling a sneeze, volunteering as a nurse, or abiding by quarantines, there was a part to play for everyone.

  • Photo: The Douglas Island News / Library of Congress / Public Domain

    Christmas In 1918 Was Solemn But Hopeful Due To The End Of WWI And The Lifting Of Some Flu Bans

    Christmas wasn't the most wonderful time of the year in 1918 in the US - but it wasn't the most horrible, either. According to Smithsonian magazine, when the holidays hit the US in 1918, the country had just been through a tough second wave of the Spanish flu, and many bans associated with the pandemic had been lifted, but another wave was beginning. Also on people's minds were the lives of loved ones lost during WWI, which had ended in November.

    Back then, states and cities made the rules about how to handle the pandemic. Kenneth C. Davis, author of More Deadly than War, said some cities, such as San Francisco, wanted to reinstate mask-wearing and closures around the holidays when flu cases started rising again, but many people, including churchgoers, resisted. “To have churches closed during the Advent-Christmas season was huge,” said Lendol Calder, a historian at Augustana College in Illinois.

    Shopping wasn't quite the spectacle it is today around the holidays, but businesses worried about a drop in sales encouraged people to shop early and deliver gifts to people who couldn't leave their homes because of illness.

    Despite the tough year, hope did seem to prevail as flu quarantines were lifted and soldiers started returning home.

    "Quarantine Off - Frivolity On" read the headline of a news item published December 13, 1918, in The Douglas Island News of Alaska. The story said the "Christmas spirit" was "beginning to assert itself" after flu bans were lifted and activities like public gatherings, shopping, and "picture shows" were allowed again. Children were even "glad to get back to school after their enforced vacation."



  • Officials Banned Or Discouraged Halloween Celebrations

    In 1918, people did not go from door to door trick-or-treating like they do now for Halloween, but they still gathered for public activities like carnivals, or other revelry including parties and mischief-making (mainly by young people). In the midst of the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic, authorities either urged people to avoid these activities, or outright banned such celebrations. They not only wanted to prevent the spread of the virus, but also to show respect to those who were sick or had perished.

    In Spokane, WA, according to  J. Alex Navarro, one of the editors-in-chief of The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia, police were told to take away Halloween masks if people were wearing them, which seem counterintuitive today, but at that time, even though some experts did encourage wearing masks to prevent the flu, they likely feared costume masks would be dangerous because people tended to share them.

    In some cities, people itching to get out didn't necessarily follow this advice, but other cities followed the lead of Buffalo, NY: A newspaper headline the next day read, "Hallowe’en revels lack the spirit of previous affairs."





  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Dance Halls And Movie Theaters Closed Down

    In order to prevent large gatherings of people in which the disease could spread, cities shut down entertainment venues that drew crowds. Dance halls and movie theaters closed in some cities, and large events were canceled. Though New York City opted to keep its movie houses open, the theaters were strictly regulated.

    In October 1918, the peak of America's epidemic, Syracuse, NY, shut down traditional gathering spaces. The local newspaper lamented Syracuse being transformed into "a silent city":

    There is absolutely nothing to bring residents to the center of the city during the coming 24 hours. It was to be a gasless, churchless, movieless, theaterless Sunday.

    Similarly, Philadelphia shut down to the extent that one eyewitness observed, "The life of the city had almost stopped."

    These social distancing measures worked: Cities that rigorously implemented them saw a reduction of cases and mortality rates.

  • Photo: Army Air Corps / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Funeral Industry Couldn't Keep Up With The Body Count

    The sheer scale and swiftness of the pandemic meant communities were overwhelmed by the body count. Morgues were so over capacity that some families kept the deceased in their homes until their remains could be collected.

    In Philadelphia - one of the hardest-hit American cities - there weren't enough coffins for all the deceased. Some undertakers resorted to using packing crates

    One public health official encouraged communities to use the resources they had to manage the situation:

    When you get back home, hunt up your wood-workers and cabinet-makers and set them to making coffins. Then take your street laborers and set them to digging graves. If you do this you will not have your dead accumulating faster than you can dispose of them.