Tag Archives: 1918 flu pandemic

1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.


1918: Spanish Influenza invades Massachusetts

From The Boston Globe; 19 October 1918, Pg. 7

During the first weeks of the Epidemic, almost 4,000 people died in Boston as a result of the Spanish Flu.

As summer became autumn in 1918, the Spanish Flu struck hard at the eastern shores of New England.  Cases emerged in Boston, Brockton, Quincy, and Gloucester and at Camp Devens.  By mid-September, 21 flu-related deaths were reported in Boston alone.  By October 1, 85,000 cases had been reported statewide and the city was experiencing deaths at a rate of about 200 a day.  Doctors, health officials, and scientists rushed to control and find a treatment for the influenza epidemic as they watched victims die within days, or even hours, of the appearance of their first symptoms.

John Owen, my grandfather, was just 17 years old and living in Lawrence, Massachusetts at the time.  He remembered seeing the wagons come around the streets of Lawrence to collect the bodies of those who had fallen victim to the flu.  As he explained it, the horse-drawn wagons would approach from the end of the street and collect bodies placed on the sidewalks, or carried out from houses.  Coffins became scarce at the height of the epidemic and workers were forced to pile the bodies one atop the next, and carry them to mass graves.

By Uncredited photographer for St. Louis Post Dispatch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house in St. Louis, Missouri.

From National Archives and Records Administration

Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918.

As influenza cases and death tolls mounted in Boston and statewide, panic emerged.  Misinformation and fear abounded.  What were the symptoms of the flu?  How could it be distinguished from the common cold?  The US Public Health Service soon released a pamphlet, informing the public that the Spanish Flu came on suddenly, striking the victim with pain and soreness throughout his body, especially in the eyes, ears, back and head.  Some experienced dizziness and nausea; most suffered fevers as high as 104°F that lasted as long as four days.  The US Public Heath Service advised that flu sufferers looked sick and likely would have bloodshot eyes, a runny nose, and a cough.

From The Lowell Sun, 27 December 1918, pg. 11

As the flu season progressed, advice to those nervous about getting sick was offered from many sources.

Beyond the pamphlets, schools became a means of disseminating information about the disease to children and their families.  During the height of the epidemic, the National School Boards Association advised the worried public to avoid sick people, crowds, and badly ventilated places, to keep warm, and to change from wet clothes quickly.  This is familiar advice, even for us today.  Local papers took it a step further, perhaps sensationalizing their advice somewhat, in order to attract more readers.

To slow the spread of the disease, public buildings, schools included, in Lawrence and many other New England cities and towns were closed.  Haverhill, Massachusetts went a step further and prohibited its schoolchildren from attending motion picture houses or other public meetings during the epidemic.  In Marblehead, Massachusetts, the high school building was converted into a hospital by the Board of Health in October 1918.  Boston’s Committee of Public Safety asked school teachers to attend flu victims; most did as schools were closed indefinitely.

From: CDC, released into public domain

This May 29, 1919 photograph showed rows of tents that had been set up on a lawn at Emery Hill in Lawrence, Massachusetts where victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic were treated.

During the epidemic, fresh air was thought paramount in protecting against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were set up in many Massachusetts cities and towns to treat the infected.  The first opened on Brookline’s Corey Hill on September 9, 1918.  Gloucester, Ipswich, Brockton, Waltham, Haverhill, Springfield, and Barre soon followed.  My grandfather would have also seen Lawrence open its own emergency camp for flu victims from the city, as well as cases from the neighboring communities of Methuen, Andover, and North Andover.  Controversy surrounded the opening of the Lawrence camp, named Emery Hill, which had been a large dairy farm that supplied milk to nearby residents.  Though the residents objected loudly to Lawrence’s Mayor Hurley; in the end, Lawrence city officials protested that they had little say in the matter.  They maintained that the state had chosen the site and was running the hospital.  By October 12, 1918, the camp had 150 patients.

In the end, more than one in every four people in the US suffered some form of the Spanish Flu, and within one year, the average life expectancy for a US citizen was shortened by 12 years.   Worldwide, more than 50 million people died – more than three times the number of lives claimed by World War I.

The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 is frequently overlooked in discussions about the history of the United States.  Does your family have a story about its experiences with the epidemic?  Did you lose any family members to it?