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How Did L.A. Cope With the Influenza Pandemic of 1918?

The following article was originally published March 25, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

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Story by Hadley Meares

 

 

Pasadena, approximately 1919: Two orderlies wearing breathing masks carry a patient in a chair, possibly during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. | Harold A. Parker/Huntington Digital Library
Pasadena, approximately 1919: Two orderlies wearing breathing masks carry a patient in a chair, possibly during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. A nurse holding some papers stands on the stairs behind them. | Harold A. Parker/Huntington Digital Library

On December 3, 1918, Angelenos were in a euphoric mood. After seven weeks of a citywide shut-down, ordered in an attempt to stamp out the deadly Spanish Flu, the "influenza ban" had finally been lifted by city leaders.

"Saturated with fiesta spirit of gaiety and good cheer, the downtown streets of Los Angeles surged yesterday with people," the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. "Some of the picture shows opened their doors early yesterday forenoon and their patronage began at once, increasing in volume as the day proceeded... long lines of people stood before the ticket window at these places."

Stores rushed to put out Christmas displays to lure holiday shoppers. Community choirs, book clubs, bible studies and schoolfriends reunited, eager for life to return to normal.

Two months prior, on October 1, 1918, everything in Los Angeles had changed.

That was when the first civilian case of the Spanish Flu had been diagnosed in the city. This particular strain of influenza would eventually kill 675,000 people in the United States and an estimated 25 to 50 million people around the world. In L.A., it killed 494 out of every 100,000 residents, approximately .49% of the city's population.

Ten days after that first case in L.A., another 680 local cases had been reported, according to N. Pieter M. O'Leary, author of The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic In Los Angeles.

City leaders acted with remarkable speed, journalist Gustave Arellano notes, closing down much of the city by October 11. Households with a diagnosed case of influenza were quarantined and marked with placards placed outside their door, group meetings were banned and life became eerily like the situation we're experiencing now.

So how did Los Angeles, then a city of approximately 570,000 people, cope? The answer is remarkably similar to how we're dealing with COVID-19 today. People developed new routines and found ways to create comfort and a sense of normality.

In the early days of the outbreak, Angelenos rushed to drugstores, eager to stock up on remedies and palliatives to combat the flu.

"The big run was on atomizers for the throat and nose, nasal douches, menthol inhalers, cold-breakers of many kinds, and dozens of highly-recommended gargles," the Los Angeles Times says in a recent story. "Listerine, peroxide and half a dozen other antiseptics and mouth washes sold like hot cakes, although some who carried home atomizers declared that they intended to stick to the old rule of a teaspoonful of common salt or baking soda to a glass of water for gargle or atomizer spray in the nose or throat."

Pasadena, approximately 1919: Patients rest in hospital beds while nurses wearing breathing masks tend to them. | Harold A. Parker/Huntington Digital Library
Pasadena, approximately 1919: Patients rest in hospital beds while nurses wearing breathing masks tend to them. This photo was likely taken in the isolation ward at Wilson High School during the 1918 and 1919 influenza epidemic. | Harold A. Parker/Huntington Digital Library

The media offered homespun, and sometimes dubious, advice.

"You are more likely to have influenza if you think you have it then if you think away from it. Keep the germs out of your mind. And don't cool off too quickly after getting heated. If you do — kerchoo!" the L.A. Times advised.

Santa Monica Police officer William Sanlin offered his remedy for warding off the dreaded flu, which the paper printed in full:

Public school officials had closed all public schools in mid-October, so parents everywhere found themselves stuck at home with bored, antsy children. Initially given no homework, students finally received direction on October 23, when an announcement was made via the local papers. "...Speaking of the saddest words of tongue or pen (from the juvenile standpoint). Here they are: Acting Superintendent Moniux of the city schools has put a period to the influenza vacation," the L.A. Times reported.

The parents of elementary school children were instructed to set aside time every day to read with their children, using schoolbooks or books from approved lists on file at the public libraries. High school students were required to study four hours a day and threatened with examinations when school reopened. Teachers could be reached by telephone for instruction. One teacher in Montrose heard her pupils' recitations over the telephone from her boardinghouse, although it "interfered with morning visits of neighbor women."

May 24, 1919: Children in Denver, Colorado play in their "backyard workshop" while schools are closed during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. | Courtesy Library of Congress
May 24, 1919: Children in Denver, Colorado play in their "backyard workshop" while schools are closed during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. | Courtesy Library of Congress

Schools also issued assignment through local newspapers, with the Los Angeles Times providing detailed instructions on what was expected for each subject. According to one article:

Shuttered churches also used novel means to reach their parishioners. "The church doors are closed today to assemblages for public worship. This is in compliance to the demands of health authorities, to which the churches have given cheerful acquiescence. But this does not mean that prayers and hymns of praise and supplication for divine guidance will not arise. They will ascend from under the rooftree at many a household, and the preachers believe that the temporary prohibition of the assemblages of people for religious meetings will have the tendency to revive practical home worship, which has become a sadly-neglected function in religious life," the L.A. Times reported on October 13, 1918.

Many leaders printed portions of their sermons in the local papers. The Reverend J.F. Hoick, pastor of the St. Paul's Lutheran Church, on the corner of Eagle Street and Euclid Avenue in Boyle Heights, had a group of Boy Scouts deliver a letter to each of his parishioners, complete with stay-at-home Sunday school lessons for children and adults. He wrote:

Although club and civic meetings were banned, there was still the pesky problem of World War I, which was winding down. Authorities made exceptions to the prohibition on group activities for people who were aiding the war effort — by sewing hospital gowns or knitting bandages, for example — as long as they wore masks.

October 10, 1918: Members of the St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the influenza epidemic. | Courtesy Library of Congress
October 10, 1918: Members of the St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the influenza epidemic. | Courtesy Library of Congress

On October 24, 1918, the L.A. Times reported that the Red Cross Auxiliaries of the First Baptist Church were meeting to sew 50 hospital garments for wounded soldiers. War bond salesmen, banned from holding public meetings and fairs, went door to door, selling stamps to aid in the war effort.

With all theaters, movie palaces and burlesque houses forcibly closed, and many film studios voluntarily shutting down, members of the entertainment industry escaped to more "healthful places."

According to gossip columnist Grace Kingsley, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille spent his time flying in his new plane, while movie star Wallace Reid meticulously studied aviation catalogues. Some performers visited the troops, while others took to the open road. Kingsley reported on the doings of various theater actors:

Normal Angelenos also escaped the crowded city. The L.A. Times reported that many people headed to places such as Bear Valley and Lake Arrowhead to hunt, fish and shoot ducks, "cheating the Spanish 'flu' by piling up all the wild meat and fresh air exercise."

Actor Wallace Reid rests his foot on a car, possibly a McFarlan Six, as a small black and white dog watches. Reid died in 1923 at age 31. | Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection
Actor Wallace Reid rests his foot on a car, possibly a McFarlan Six, as a small black and white dog watches. Reid died in 1923 at age 31. | Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

People stuck in the city found other ways to occupy their time. They didn't have Zoom or Facetime but they did have the telephone — and they used it. On October 27, 1918, the phone company, with 300 of its operators out with the flu, had to beg L.A. residents to not make calls unless absolutely necessary. "Its efforts are being handicapped, it is stated, by unnecessary use of telephones in the residence district, where lengthy and unessential conversations often are carried on," the L.A. Times reported.

Angelenos developed new slang to deal with the social effects of the pandemic. According to O'Leary, the term "slacker" was originally used to label citizens uninvolved in the war effort while a person who was fear-mongering about the war was a "calamity howler." The slang evolved to encompass the new influenza reality:

Although L.A. residents appear to have been diligent in obeying the ban and avoiding crowds, many people threw caution to the wind in the early morning hours of November 12, 1918, when news of the signing of the Armistice reached California. The "war to end all wars" had finally ended. Across Los Angeles, war and flu weary citizens flooded the streets, according to the Los Angeles Times:

The headline of the Los Angeles Evening Herald on November 11, 1918 marks the end of World War I. | Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection
The headline of the Los Angeles Evening Herald on November 11, 1918 marks the end of World War I. | Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Perhaps it was the euphoria of the war's end or the decline in reported influenza cases in L.A., but by late November it seems Angelenos had become more lax about the quarantine.

"From Fourth to Eighth street one almost had to elbow his way along. In going the distance six or seven masks might be encountered, while from fifty to seventy-five people without masks were sneezing and coughing as they hurried along, apparently unmindful of other people's germs and not stingy with their own. The 'flu squad' from central police station... spent yesterday on Broadway breaking up crowds and keeping traffic on the move," the L.A. Times reported on November 27, 1918.

On December 2, the flu ban was officially lifted. According to Arellano, Los Angeles had overall fared much better than most large cities but restrictions had been loosened too soon. L.A. soon saw an uptick in new cases, especially among school-age children.

By mid-December of 1918, officials had again cancelled schools (giving students the option to study by mail) and reinstated some restrictions.

"Now, municipal resources focused on quarantine [the sick] as the most effective weapon against influenza," notes the University of Michigan's Influenza Archive. "For the rest of the epidemic, the City Council appropriated money as needed to give the health department enough quarantine inspectors to visit homes, manufacturing plants, stores, hotels, and apartment houses. These temporary inspectors, many of whom were returning veterans, also ran errands for the sick and ministered to the needs of affected families."

November 1918: A nurse takes a patient's pulse in the influenza ward of Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. | Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress
November 1918: A nurse takes a patient's pulse in the influenza ward of Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. | Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

To appease business leaders, the ban on public gatherings was not reinstated and businesses were allowed to stay open unless employees had been diagnosed with the flu. However, many Angelenos had been chastened by the recurrence of flu cases. On December 14, a writer for the L.A. Times struck a somber tone:

The regulations remained in place until early January 1919, when the danger had largely passed. The last Los Angeles schools reopened in early February.

As the Influenza Archive notes, thanks to relatively quick action, Los Angeles emerged from this crucible in better shape than most big cities. Although private griefs remained, civic leaders were ready to leave wars and flu pandemics behind. Los Angeles was racing into the Roaring '20s, the biggest boom period the city had yet experienced. Large scale suffering, its residents hoped, was a thing of the past.

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