In our last blog we introduced the 1918 flu pandemic, discussed how the flu traveled through U.S. military camps during the last year of World War I, and briefly looked at how this topic was discussed in historical Florida newspapers. This seemingly unstoppable flu, which affected every segment of the population, stumped doctors and created a public health crisis. In this blog post, we’ll discuss attempts to limit the spread of the disease and some of the products that were incorrectly marketed as methods to prevent or cure the flu.
Responding to a public health crisis during wartime was no easy task for the U.S. Government. John M. Barry discusses the tension that existed between the need to downplay stories that would impact the morale of the American people and the very real health threat presented by the flu. He claims that newspapers helped downplay initial reports of the flu’s severity but, by late September 1918, there was no way to deny the presence of the flu in Florida and most other east-coast states. Around this time, articles begin to appear in our Florida papers, written by government agencies like the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) with recommendations on how to avoid the flu as well as how to treat it. One Government piece titled “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu” ran in many Florida papers including The Ocala evening star and The Nassau County leader. This article is particularly interesting because it explicitly talks about the King of Spain’s multiple bouts of influenza over the years and doubles down on the “Spanish Flu” name/origin. While some of the information about the flu itself is highly speculative, it does offers some practical advice to those helping the sick including that “no one but the nurse should be allowed in the room” and “care should be taken that all such discharges are collected on bits of gauze or rag or paper napkins and burned.” But the simple fact of the matter is many of the suggestions for avoiding disease transmission aren’t specific to the flu. This is likely due to the fact that “in 1918, the medical profession did not know what caused Spanish flu. And because they did not know the cause, it did not know to prevent the disease” (Duncan 11).
While the Federal government was certainly concerned with the flu, local governments and newspapers stepped in with their own suggestions and policies in an attempt to limit the impact of the epidemic in their areas. On the most basic end, we have examples like the fact that The Ocala evening star printed directions for making and properly wearing masks while attending to the sick multiple times during the height of the second wave of influenza. The Ocala evening star also ran a proclamation by the Mayor in early October 1918 titled “Concerning Measures Taken to Prevent Spread of Disease known as Spanish Influenza.” It mentions that “city health authorities have seen fit to close the schools, theaters, churches and other places of public assembly.” He also asks that people “avoid as far as possible gathering in crowds” and that parents “prevent as far as possible their children from going abroad.” He was not alone in his calls for “diligence to alleviate the situation.”
Quarantines weren’t necessarily popular, but many local governments felt they were the most effective way to limit the spread of flu. As Kristy Duncan points out, medical practitioners “rightly assumed that the disease could be spread through the air by coughing or sneezing. Therefore many governments at all levels and on all continents enforced the closure of public areas where people might come into close contact with one another. They closed dance halls, schools, and libraries. Some North American cities shut YMCAs, ice-cream parlours, shoeshine parlours, candy stores, furniture stores, and churches (Duncan 11).” Quarantines were used throughout Florida during the height of the flu epidemic. Pensacola banned public gatherings even after the worst part of the epidemic had passed. While Orlando didn’t seem to have a quarantine, public officials told citizens that they needed to stop visiting neighbors or else it would “be necessary to ask the City Council to pass an ordinance” with a more enforceable quarantine. Schools were closed in many places, including Ocala and Lakeland. The Lakeland evening telegram is unique among our papers in that for one week in October they published the lessons students were missing due to the school closures. There’s no indication of if this section of the paper only ran for one week, (possibly because of illness among the teachers and/or students?), but it demonstrates that there were attempts to maintain some normalcy in the face of influenza.
Desperation and fear meant that people were willing to try just about anything to cure or prevent the flu. There are multiple articles in our papers explaining that the flu “doesn’t like lemons” or other citrus fruits. The Punta Gorda herald even claimed “unaccountable barrels of hot lemonade have been drunken to drown the flu germs” causing “a lemon shortage in America.” Brands were also quick to recognize that public concern surrounding this epidemic could be leveraged to sell “cures” to the public. Lack of regulation regarding patent medicines in the early 20th century allowed many products to claim to be effective flu remedies. Some companies, including Calotabs and Vicks VapoRub wrote ads that were intentionally designed to look like news articles touting the supposed efficacy of their products against the flu. Others, like Foley’s Honey and Tar, adopted a more standard advertising format to encourage consumers to buy their products. Even after the threat of the “Spanish Flu” had passed, memory of and fear of another epidemic probably influenced companies like Peruna and Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic to include flu in the list of diseases and ailments they claimed their products protected against.
The best cure for the flu was ultimately time, but many people succumbed to the disease or complications caused by it before their body could successfully fight off the virus. Fear of the flu and the desperation that came with it resulted in governmental willingness to resort to quarantines and the willingness of private citizens to turn to cures like eating excessive amounts of citrus. Join us next month for the culmination of 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.