Life

What Was Christmas Like During the Flu Pandemic of 1918?

Scenes from a season of cautious optimism.

Clippings from the various old newspaper articles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Buyenlarge/Getty Images, Milwaukee Sentinel, Salt Lake Tribune, Spokesman-Review, Grand Rapids Herald, Boston Globe, and Baltimore Sun.

This, of course, is not the first holiday season in the United States to take place during a pandemic. As Christmas neared in 1918, people were cautiously optimistic, because that winter’s “grippe” (as they sometimes called it) seemed a bit milder than the preceding year’s. They were elated, because World War I was over, and America was on the winning side; they were feeling patriotic and ready to spend money. They were exhausted and sad; they were ready to move on. Meanwhile, the flu continued to spread.

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In the Influenza Encyclopedia—a project edited by historian Howard Markel and produced by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine—you can read newspaper coverage of that flu Christmas. These scanned pages do an excellent job at conveying the weird mix of fear and optimism Americans felt, in this same season of their own pandemic.

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Here are some of the things people were reading, in December of that bad/good year.

Baltimore Sun, Dec. 4, 1918

"150 OF CREW DIE OF 'FLU' ON LINER" reads the headline on an old news clipping.
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York, Pa. Dec. 3.—The influenza is sweeping the county and closing the schools in all sections. It is the opinion of many physicians that it emanates directly from the county teachers’ institute held in York last week. … Reports are coming in from all sections of the county of teachers having the disease.

York, Pa., Dec. 8.—The Red Lion schools will only be closed one day this year for the Christmas holidays. Heretofore it was customary to close the schools for 10 days. The board decided to close only one day this year in order to make up some of the time lost during the influenza epidemic.

Here’s the Influenza Encyclopedia’s article about Baltimore’s experience with the flu.

Milwaukee Journal, Dec. 5, 1918

A full page of articles and headlines from an old newspaper, some of which is quoted below.
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Shorewood school was closed Wednesday night on account of the influenza and will remain closed until after the holidays. Arrangements will be made for home study by the pupils. The Nunnemacher hospital appealed to the Red Cross to supply additional nurses. …

The influenza epidemic may interfere seriously with the handling of the Christmas mail. Every department of the post office has been affected. Postmaster Frank H. Schutz urges prompt mailing of all presents and cards.

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Milwaukee and the flu.

Boston Globe, Dec. 12, 1918

Three articles with headlines like, "URGES PRECAUTIONS OVER CHRISTMAS," from an old newspaper clipping.
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Precautions as to visiting are urged by the Boston Health Department to guard against the further spread of the grippe during the Christmas holidays so that there may not be the same aftermath that characterized the days following the Victory Day crowds and the Thanksgiving celebrations.

Boston and the flu.

Grand Rapids Herald, Dec. 17, 1918

A headline says, "OPEN BUREAU FOR NURSES TO FIGHT 'FLU' AMONG POOR" in an old newspaper clipping.
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There have been few to answer the appeal of Director Davidson of the welfare department for volunteers for nursing in the homes of the poor. The nurses and student nurses of Mt. Mercy Sisters of Mercy, 1425 Bridge Street, offered their services Monday and they will be engaged. …

All society and education functions of the churches, including Christmas exercises are banned, Dr. Slemons announced Monday. Only purely religious services will be permitted. …

Reports were received by the Health Department Monday that in some instances theaters have been violating the order which denies children under 16 years of age to attend. “The theater proprietors cannot accept the statements of children or their parents as to their ages,” Dr. Slemons said, “and those who attempt to throw the responsibility on the children will be punished. Their places will be closed for the period of the epidemic.”

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Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the flu.

Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), Dec. 20, 1918

A headline reads, "FLU INSPECTORS IN STORE, PLAN" on an old newspaper clipping.
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Miss Elizabeth Newbery, commandant of the Spokane Red Cross motor corps, has filed her resignation as head of the motor corps with R.G. McClintock, chairman of the Spokane chapter, effective January 1. While Miss Newbery gave no reason for her resignation, it is understood by her friends that the increased demands upon her during the influenza epidemic have been taxing.

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Reports of crowding in the stores by holiday shoppers reached the city health office yesterday. Dr. Anderson will ask the stores to maintain an inspector, sworn in by the city and paid by the store, to see that shoppers do not congest the aisles. …

Christmas dances and large café dinner parties are to continue under the ban. The effect of Christmas merry making forms the only uncertainty as to controlling influenza. With this danger passed the restrictions probably will be removed.

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Spokane and the flu.

Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 21, 1918

A headline reads, "CHRISTMAS CROWDS" on an article in an old newspaper clipping.
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Thrift and economy have been practiced to a very considerable extent during the past year, and the Spanish influenza hurt business to an almost alarming extent. But the holiday spirit is abroad in the land, and the “flu” is not as much of a menace as it was a few weeks ago. So the merchants of the United States, in Utah and Salt Lake as well as in other portions of the country, are being patronized as never before. …

Shoppers are crowding the streets and stores of this city, and the hustling buyers are taking the greatest possible amount of pleasure in purchasing gifts for their families and friends and ordering the best there is in the market for next Wednesday’s feast. …

We can all afford to let out a few links at this season of the year. The Lord has prospered us as a nation, and we do not need to pinch and scrape and lock up both purse and heart during the holidays. But let us not forget that the Red Cross needs money with which to carry on its great work.

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Salt Lake City and the flu.

Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 22, 1918

A headline reads, "EPIDEMIC DELAYS CHRISTMAS PLANS" in an old newspaper clipping.
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Various patriotic and charitable organizations, which were to have Christmas entertainments, find it necessary to postpone them on account of the influenza. If there is a decided change in the condition it may be possible to hold them later on. …

Many private parties have been planned. … The dances scheduled for Christmas week at the Town club are as follows: Mr. and Mrs. William Sawyer will entertain for their daughter, Miss Polly, Christmas night; Mr. and Mrs. Albert Elser will entertain for their daughter, Miss Elizabeth, Thursday night.

Omaha Daily Bee, Dec. 24, 1918

Business interests of the city are aroused over the order of the State Board of Health, making Spanish influenza a quarantinable disease. … In Omaha at least 500 homes will be quarantined and none of the people who live in a house where there is even one case of “flu” will be permitted to go out until four days after the fever has gone down. … Big blue cards are now being printed to be tacked on the houses in place of the present “voluntary” cards which merely signify danger. … A fine of $15 to $100 is provided for any violation of the quarantine order.

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A report that furloughs of soldiers at Fort Omaha were being canceled on account of the influenza is a mistake, according to Colonel Wuest, commanding officer. “It is all news to me,” the colonel said. “I have been signing furloughs for the boys to go home over Christmas all day, and this is the first I have heard of the report.”

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Omaha, Nebraska, and the flu.

Grand Rapids Herald, Dec. 26, 1918

It was here and now it is gone, the merriest, brightest, and most thankful Christmas the world has ever known. It’s coming next year, but it will never be the same. That victorious feeling, intermingled with the joy and pathos which comes to every triumphant nation, was for this year only. …

Theatres were crowded, both afternoon and evening. Little Christmas features, which never fail to touch an audience, were provided by managers. Children indulged in a “movie” after nearly two weeks of “flu” hibernation. …

Taking it on the whole, it was a great day. Not too cold, an ideal coverlet of snow over the city, plenty of eats … a conspicuous number of khaki clad boys returning to the family circle. What more could one desire?

Chicago Herald and Examiner, Dec. 30, 1918

A headline reads, "COUPLE ADOPT 4 FLU ORPHANS" in an old newspaper clipping.
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For the first time in the adult lives of Mr. and Mrs. Henry M. Fowler, dolls, Noah’s arks, squeaky dogs and ginger cookies are strewn about their house in Willmette. And for the first time child eyes filled with wonder are turned upward as the Christmas tree is lighted in the evening. …

For an entire family has been acquired by the childless couple. There are only four children in all, though at times it seems like there are twenty. …

They went to the Fowlers’ house to live after their own father and mother died last October of influenza.

Chicago and the flu.

Oregon Daily Journal, Jan. 2, 1919

A headline reads, "PHYSICIANS PREDICT FLU CASES WILL GROW BECAUSE OF REVELRY."
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A sharp increase in the number of Spanish influenza cases may be expected the end of this week, with a corresponding increase in the death rate about five days later, according to conclusions reached by Dr. A.C. Seely, state health officer. …

Of all public gatherings, according to Dr. Seely, dances contribute the greatest number of cases. … A number of persons disregard quarantine, according to Dr. Seely, some innocently, some purposely.

“Until such time as each citizen thinks as much of his neighbors as of himself, and so long as he continues to sneeze, cough and spit with such careless abandon, the trouble will go on,” warned the health officer.

Portland, Oregon, and the flu.

Toledo Daily Blade, Jan. 15, 1919

The distribution of oranges and a theatre party for 7,000 Toledo children planned by Herbert W. Lancashire of the Dodge Bros. automobile agency, has been postponed indefinitely. …

Mr. Lancashire called off the party to prevent the spread of influenza. It was planned originally for Christmas.

Toledo, Ohio, and the flu.

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