Looking Back at 1918: The Human Experience of a Pandemic

By Jen Giambrone, Historian

The COVID-19 pandemic has me thinking—like a lot of people—about 1918. The influenza pandemic that swept the globe that year struck at a particularly vulnerable moment. Soldiers from all corners of the globe crammed into filthy trenches where disease and misery already flourished. The end of the war was cause for celebration—and cause for all of those soldiers to head home, taking the deadly disease with them.

In her recent blog, my colleague Mimi Eisen explores the merits—and pitfalls—of comparing today’s crisis to the 1918 pandemic. It is illuminating. But my thoughts have turned not just to the medical comparisons—how the spread, symptoms, infection and mortality rates of COVID-19 stack up to the 1918 influenza strain—but how our human experience compares. If social distancing seems difficult now, imagine a time when you couldn’t order groceries, medicine, and other supplies online; when you couldn’t video chat with loved ones; when Netflix wasn’t available to provide hours of in-home entertainment; when information wasn’t available at your fingertips (for better or worse).

Healthcare workers treat patients in a makeshift influenza ward at Rochester General Hospital. Source: Rochester Museum & Science Center

So, how did people cope in 1918? How did influenza impact their daily lives, and what did they make of those changes? How has the experience of a pandemic changed in 100 years, and how has it stayed the same, if at all? My own family had a tragic experience in 1918; one that, had it not happened, I would not be here today. My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Sicily before she was born. They settled in Rochester, New York, and had three young children—all of whom succumbed to the flu. The heartbroken parents eventually had more children, including my grandmother, born in 1926.

Then, as now, the experience of the pandemic is at once incredibly universal and intensely personal. The physical, emotional, psychological, and financial changes that we are all experiencing cannot, and should not, be overgeneralized—the same is true of people who went through the 1918 pandemic. Fortunately, many individual accounts, like letters and diaries, are available online.  I’ve shared just a few of them here, to offer a momentary glimpse into their lives. Perhaps you will see yourself in their words.

Many diaries of the time included matter-of fact-entries, in clipped sentences, recording daily occurrences—the alarming alongside the banal. That is the case in the diary of Edith Coffin (Colby) Mahoney of Massachusetts. Read more of her diary on the Massachusetts Historical Society website.

September 24, 1918

“Mr. Freeman here. Eugene has developed pneumonia from Spanish Influenza. Serious epidemic everywhere. [Canned] carrots.”

September 26, 1918

“Torrential rain for 24 hours beginning at 3am today, some thunder in the P.M.. Most depressing day after bad news from Eugene. He died at 6:40am. Several thousand cases in the city with a great shortage of nurses and doctors. Theatres, churches, gatherings of every kind stopped. Even 4th Liberty Loan drivers parade postponed.”

In Seattle, Washington, Violet Harris was 15 years old when the pandemic hit the city. USA Today has published several excerpts from her diary. She documents the swift and dramatic actions Seattle took to stop the spread of disease.

A trolley driver in Seattle stops a man without a mask from boarding during the 1918 pandemic. Source: National Archives

October 5, 1918

“It was announced in the papers tonight that all churches, shows and schools would be closed until further notice, to prevent Spanish influenza from spreading. Good idea? I’ll say it is! So will every other school kid, I calculate. … The only cloud in my sky is that the (School) Board will add the missed days on to the end of the term.”

 October 28, 1918

“It says in to-night’s paper that to-morrow all Seattle will be wearing masks. No one will be allowed on a streetcar without one. Gee! People will look funny—like ghosts.”

 October 31, 1918

“I stayed in all day and didn’t even go to Rena’s. The flu seems to be spreading, and Mama doesn’t want us to go around more than we need to.”

While schools were closed, some youngsters made toys for children displaced by the war overseas. Source: National Archives

Physician Roy N. Grist was stationed at Camp Devens, a military base near Boston, Massachusetts, in September 1918. He wrote to a friend and fellow doctor about pneumonia at the camp (in 1918, bacterial pneumonia often followed the viral influenza infection, and ultimately caused the most deaths). The full letter is available on the PBS American Experience site.

 September 29, 1918

“I don’t wish you any hard luck Old Man, but do wish you were here for a while at least. It’s more comfortable when one has a friend about. The men here are all good fellows, but I get so damned sick o’ pneumonia that when I eat I want to find some fellow who will not “talk shop” but there ain’t none, no how. We eat it, sleep it, and dream it, to say nothing of breathing it 16 hours a day. I would be very grateful indeed if you would drop me a line or two once in a while, and I will promise you that if you ever get into a fix like this, I will do the same for you.”

Wondering how, or when, you’ll get a haircut? In 1918, officials encouraged people not to gather together indoors. This California barber shop moved its operation outdoors as a result. Source: National Archives

Mary Elizabeth (Bess) Shellabarger joined the University of Colorado Red Cross Unit when the United States entered World War I in 1917. She served at a hospital in London, fighting the pandemic from the front lines. Her diary is published in the book Three Scuffed Suitcases: Biography from the Diaries Of Mary Elizabeth “Bess” Shellabarger.

With many doctors and nurses serving the military overseas, the United States faced a widespread shortage of medical personnel during the outbreak, and called upon all able-bodied citizens to help. Here, Red Cross volunteers assemble gauze masks in Boston. Source: CDC

 October 16, 1918

“My Birthday: I have barely been getting around. I know I have the flu, but just keep going. We have trouble keeping the delirious boys in bed. They think this is their dorm. Losing corpsmen and 16 nurses ill from Influenza and Pneumonia (Plague).

 October 21, 1918

We are almost overwhelmed with the influenza plague which is spreading over London, over the whole World, in fact. There are no vaccines in London to immunize the command, as is the custom in infected districts of the U.S.A. I’ve decided to do something to save my sanity, I am taking organ lessons from the organist at St. Anne’s Church. The organ is one played by Mendelssohn.

Meanwhile, a Marine Corps recruit stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina, wrote a letter about his time at boot camp. His letter is part of a collection held by the UCLA Library.

 September 26, 1918

“We were quarrentined [sic] on account of the Spanish Influenza and everyone is mad.”

Now there’s a sentiment I think many of us can relate to.


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