What Life Was Like During the Spanish Flu of 1918

You’ve probably seen articles comparing the Corona virus and COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu. But beyond the numbers, what was life like during the Spanish Flu of 1918/1919? Social historian Lori Lyn Price has some answers.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 44

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 29 minutes.

About Lori Lyn Price

Lori Lyn has been speaking at historical and genealogical events since 2009 and has been working on her own genealogy off and on for over 20 years. She loves social history and medicine (perhaps due to working as a statistician in medical research for over 20 years) and helping genealogists bring their ancestors to life via social and historical context. One of her favorite talks illustrates the impact of the 1918 flu through family stories she has collected. She can be found at BridgingThePast.com and the stories she has collected about the 1918 flu can be found at 1918FluStories.com. She is always looking for more stories to share about the impact of the 1918 flu.

Note About This Episode:

If you typically listen to the podcast with children, you might want to listen to it by yourself first. It is a heavy topic and we get into some rather stark details that might not be appropriate for all age levels.

What Was the Spanish Flu (and Why Was It Called That, Anyway)?

The first recognized case was in March 1918 at a US Army camp in Kansas. Doctors soon noticed more cases of flu and pneumonia, along with more deaths. Then it decreased. World War I was still ongoing, and soldiers continued to be shipped back and forth across the Atlantic.

The flu started coming back to America in late August and early September of 1918. The leading theory is that what had started in Kansas in March made its way over to the trenches of European battlefields and then mutated into the horrible virus that we know as the 1918 flu.

The 1918 flu became known as the Spanish Flu because most countries were censoring coverage of the epidemic. The first country to start openly reporting on the flu was Spain, which lead people to think that it originated there (even though it originated in Kansas).

It is estimated that 500-100 million people died worldwide, with approximately 675,000 in the US. (Based on percentages, that would equate to almost 2 million deaths in the US today).

Army camps were breeding grounds of the flu. To ramp up the number of troops, training camps were built across the United States. These camps were often overcrowded (sometimes holding 4-5 times their designed capacity). If the flu hit a camp, it wasn’t hard for it to then spread into the community.

The Spanish Flu hit in waves. In the fall of 1918, very stringent measures of closures and isolation were put into place, which helped bring down the numbers (“flatten the curve,” as we would call it today). There was a slight resurgence in November after people started coming back out again, especially when the war ended and people were out celebrating that. The Spanish Flu died out in the US in the summer of 1919.

Censorship

Politicians in the US and around the world censored coverage of the Spanish Flu. However, going into early fall, 1918, people couldn’t help but know about the number of deaths. Even when officials would talk about, they would try to minimize it by saying it was just the “normal” flu; those officials quickly had to backtrack those comments.

Isolation and Realities During the Spanish Flu

In early October in Boston, schools, libraries, churches, and saloons were ordered closed. By this time, everyone knew that almost a thousand people had died just in Boston and that this wasn’t just the normal flu. There was this huge sense of isolation and fear; people didn’t know what they could do to protect their family.

New Haven, Conn. Illustrated Current News, 1918. Image courtesy National Library of Medicine.

In places like Philadelphia, the death toll was so high and the deaths happened so quickly that the morgues couldn’t keep up with it. The dead would be stacked on the streets waiting for somebody to come by and take them. There were some places where there were mass burials because they couldn’t keep up with digging graves individually

Dying and Funerals During the Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu disproportionately hit healthy people in their 20s-40s. The virus attacked the lungs. With no immunity, the body would try to attack the virus, but ended up over-compensating the attack and created a cytokine storm. This ended up causing pneumonia, which is what many actually died from. (You will see this noted on many death certificates.)

Funeral homes were instructed to not allow wakes and to actually take away chairs (to prevent visitors from staying and socializing). Funerals were sometimes restricted to just immediate family members.

The Aftermath

With so many victims being people in their 20s-40s, many children were left without parents. These children often ended up in orphanages or with family members, sometimes not in good circumstances.

Lori Lyn has anecdotal evidence that the trend was if one of the parents survived and the children were placed in an orphanage or with other family members while convalescing, they often didn’t take the children back, even later if they remarried.

Recovery from the Spanish Flu was long and people were prone to relapse if they did too much too soon. This greatly impacted families’ ability to support themselves, as breadwinners could have difficulty holding down jobs.

Lori Lyn noted that many of the stories of the 1918 epidemic are being lost, as people tended to not want to talk about it when it was all over.

Are you recording your story of what you’re experiencing now?

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  • I just today, as I was working on cleaning up my files, noticed an obituary from 1920 for my granduncle’s first wife, the mother of his five young children. She died in 1920 of the flu. Because the town she lived near was pretty isolated in the Pacific Northwest, I think this was probably the tail end of the Spanish flu, just hitting that area. I know the granduncle kept the girls with him when he remarried, but the boys were raised by his “spinster” sister.

  • Excellent podcast so thank you! One concern – while we are indeed in the midst of a pandemic, don’t play down the ‘plain old flu.’ I believe there are still 18,000 to 90,000 deaths annually from influenza. Hence the push for vaccines every year.
    I will ask a few older friends if they recall their grandparents talking about the Spanish flu.
    Melanie Renfroe

    • Definitely not trying to downplay seasonal flu at all! I think people get it in their minds that the “regular” flu “isn’t too bad for most people, so what’s the big deal?” They ignore just how deadly even the seasonal flu can be.

  • My grandmother died of pneumonia and influenza in November 1918 in Portland, Oregon. She was 38 years old. I don’t know if her husband and son were also sick, but my grandfather committed suicide 2 years later. Very sad.

  • I can think of nothing more relevant to discuss considering our current situation. It is my hope and prayer that we have gotten control of the current viral outbreak early enough that there is very little loss of life in this country and around the world.

  • We received a picture of an extended family in 1916 – parents, their children and grandchildren. Four of the people in the photo died in January 1919 of the flu. A couple within a day of each other, leaving several children orphaned.

  • Thank you. This has been very good information. My Great Grandmother died in Nov. of 1918 of the flu. They lived in San Francisco. The sad part is her son was stationed in France and could not get home. Apparently, he never got over his mother’s death.

  • I have letters from my Grandmother to her mother during the 1918 pandemic- Grandma was in college in what was called Dietetics. She and her classmates were preparing the food for the flu patients on campus. She reassured her mother that they were not delivering the meals. She also asked her mother to quickly sew up some “Truman dresses” for her and her classmates. Truman dresses were a smock type of covering.

  • When she was 17, my great grandmother and her whole family (except her 8 year old brother) got the flu. This was in a small town in West Australia. She writes a bit about it in her autobiography.
    ……

    “I remember many celebrations that were held when peace was declared in 1918. Later on there was a terrible influenza epidemic, a particularly bad type of flu that resulted in many deaths. People did not visit any home in which someone had the flu. Bread, milk, etc were left outside by the gate, as the tradesmen would not enter the premises. Hospitals, schools, etc were taken over as isolation wards. I believe that was when ‘Aspro’ was introduced into the community.”

    “I remember coming home one evening feeling very sick. I had to go through a heavily timbered block of land and part of the way through it, I collapsed and was not found until some time later. I had contracted the flu and it was not long before the whole family, seven of us, had caught it, with the exception of my brother, who used to sit in the passageway, outside our rooms, and wait on us with water, etc.”
    ……

    Thankfully they all survived.

  • Very timely article. In reading the linked resources, especially the Smithsonian magazine article, I saw many similarities to current events.

    My family story related to the 1918 flu is about my great-granduncle. He was digging the grave for his daughter Hilda in November 1918, and said he expected they’d be digging one for him soon. He was right; he died five days later.

  • My great grandmother died from this flu in 1918. My grandmother, who was married, then raised her younger sister. They lived in Texas.

  • My mother was born in 1913 and told me several times her “story” of the 1918 flu. She lived in a small town in Pennsylvania and when the flu was at it’s peak, someone suggested that all of the children in town be sent away to a place in the mountains. I don’t remember what kind of place it was. All of the children went except for one whose parents wouldn’t let him go. All of the children who went were saved–the young boy who stayed in town died. So sad.