Over the last 2 months, we’ve discussed varying aspects of the 1918 flu pandemic. Beyond front pages, which predominately present national updates on the flu, there are other sections of our papers where the gravity of the influenza pandemic becomes undeniable; notably the society page. In our blog we’ve previously discussed women’s/society pages at length, but, as a refresher, society sections are regularly occurring columns in newspapers that cover issues including parties, women’s clubs, social visits from out of town, and other issues that were considered to relate to the domestic sphere. Additionally, some newspapers papers had broad local news sections. During height of the pandemic, the flu was often mentioned in those columns as well as in the society sections. In this post we’ll highlight content from society and local news sections of our papers to contextualize the effect of the pandemic on towns and cities in Florida.
In her book on the pandemic, Kristy Duncan points out that “in the United States, the 1918 influenza pandemic caused 550,000 deaths, widespread social disruption, and enormous burdens on health care and civil infrastructure” (Duncan 4-5). While this number is shocking, it is perhaps so large that it obfuscates the individual and local impact the flu made in Florida. Society pages really bring to light the intimate labor associated with caring for the sick as well as the mourning that occurred when loved ones succumbed to the disease.
In The Pensacola journal, which has the most consistent society page of our collection, readers will notice an uptick in reports of illness beginning at the end of September 1918. One particularly telling report is about a Lieutenant Cyester Smith, who had just returned from overseas duty only to find himself in a naval hospital in Virginia with pneumonia. For many affected by the flu, pneumonia followed with deadly consequences. While we are certainly speculating as to if Lieutenant Smith had the flu, it fits the timeline presented by Duncan. In her book, she notes “in September, the disease swept Europe. Returning troop carried flu home. In North America, servicemen disembarked from crowded ships at Atlantic ports only to board trains that would take them, along with flu, inland to cities, villages, and farms from Newfoundland to California” (Duncan 8). By mid-October 1918, nearly every issue of The Pensacola journal contained reports of illnesses, recoveries, and deaths attributed to flu and pneumonia. The overwhelming number of reports on this same topic demonstrate the spread of the disease to and around Pensacola.
Interestingly, along with the flu epidemic we see a more regularly occurring section of The Pensacola journal: the obituary column. Prior to the 1918 flu pandemic, obituaries sporadically appeared in the paper, but the sheer number of deaths associated with influenza necessitated running it much more frequently. During this time, there are an almost overwhelming number of obituaries related to deaths attributed to either pneumonia or influenza. Following the end of the pandemic, the column remained in the paper, appearing on a regular basis.
The society and local sections of The Lakeland evening telegram, while not quite as robust as The Pensacola journal, also provide snapshots into how influenza affected Lakeland. Similarly, by mid-October these sections were inundated with reports of sick citizens as well as reports of those that had passed away. Uniquely, on several occasions the paper also includes a report by the acting city Health Officer about the number of new flu cases in the city. The Lakeland evening telegram also opened up about their own struggle to produce the paper in the face of sickness and asked subscribers to “try to be as good-natured as you can” if “your paper is late, or if the substitute carrier boy misses you.”
On a practical level, society sections are exceptionally useful for historians and genealogists trying to locate information on specific people. It is worth mentioning that not all deaths were reported in society sections and, given the fact that our papers were written by and for the white populations of cities, African American deaths by and large aren’t mentioned or, if they are, they are reported without the use of specific names. Even with a subject as macabre as the 1918 flu pandemic, the society page sheds light on the day-to-day lives of people living where our newspapers were published.
We’ve hoped you’ve enjoyed our series on the 1918 flu pandemic.
Citations and Additional Sources
Barry, John M. “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/.
Byerly, Carol R. “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.” Public Health Reports 2010; 125 (Suppl 3): 82-91. Accessed July 5, 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862337/.
Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Duncan, Kirsty. Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a Killer Virus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
Gunderman, Richard. “The ‘greatest pandemic in history’ was 100 years ago-but many of us still get the basic facts wrong.” The Conversation, January 11, 2018. https://theconversation.com/the-greatest-pandemic-in-history-was-100-years-ago-but-many-of-us-still-get-the-basic-facts-wrong-89841.
Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.