A little dip back in time to see how the influenza pandemic was being characterized in the papers over a century ago. The article comes from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, October 19, 1918, and the photograph from The Sketch a year later.
THE INFLUENZA SCOURGE. We are told that the best way to guard against influenza is not to worry about it. It is sensible advice, although probably it will have little effect, for the people who are given to worrying over what may happen to them will go on worrying. The people who will follow the advice will be those who would have done so in any case. It would be idle, of course, to try and soothe popular fears by minimising the severity of the epidemic. The whole world is in its grip, and not only is it widespread, but its form is often most virulent. In Sheffield last week, for instance, the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia reached 300, and all over the country the mortality has been high. There is thus far no sign of any abatement of the scourge, and there are no measures known to medical science that can prevent its running its course. The only useful precautions are those that the individual can practise himself—living as healthily as possible both in mind and body, taking plenty of fresh air, food, and sleep, and keeping out of crowds. If, despite this, he gets it, let him go to bed at once; it is not a complaint that tolerates obstinate heroics. This world outbreak has completely mystified the medical profession. There have been similar pandemics but a writer in The Times is of the opinion that there has been none of these proportions since the Middle Ages. It has swept over the earth like a cyclone, and the causes of its spread are unknown. It is not to be ascribed to the war, although it is possible that its effect has been more pronounced on account of conditions that the war has produced. We do not know that there is even sound evidence of that, for in this country the national health was never so good, and although the sanitary conditions are worse through shortage of labour, that can scarcely apply to the United States where the epidemic is as bad as here. Perhaps the mental state of the people, which has been abnormal for over four years, may have lessened the resistive power, and provided a favourable reproductive nest for the disease germs. But the phenomena of the disease remain baffling, and call for profound and lengthy scientific study that has not hitherto been given to them. We have passed beyond the time when any intelligent mind would see in this world affliction a visitation from God for fighting a war in defence of our liberties. Pandemics are mysteries only because they have never been thoroughly investigated. We may be sure there are definite physical causes for them, and that it is not beyond the brain of man to trace them. The last thing we must do is to give way to superstitious fears.
Oddly, it seems to me, the world has gone mad for toilet paper. Almost as soon as schools and businesses began to close in reaction to the threat of Covid-19, and “social distancing” became a familiar term and practice, toilet paper disappeared from store shelves. I don’t know why that happened; I assume there are people somewhere who have reams of the stuff in their basements, secure in the knowledge that no matter what Armageddon might come, they at least will be able to wipe their bums.
We’re into the fourth week of this strange new reality, and there is still no toilet paper on the shelves of the grocery store in the small town where I live. Of course I don’t go there every day, so it’s possible stock came in, and it was all purchased by the time I again visited. And before the kind souls out there offer to drop a roll at my house, thank you, I’m alright; I found some at my local pharmacy. But the odd practice of hoarding something like toilet paper got me thinking about the product we so take for granted. Everyone jokes about people way back when using pages of the Eaton’s catalog – or the Sears Roebuck catalog, if you’re American – so I wondered, when did the toilet paper we know and love today become a staple of our world?
Paper, of course, was invented by the ever-innovative Chinese, and there are various references to its use in tidying up the nether regions. The earliest of these is accredited to a Chinese scholar named Yan Zhitui who wrote in 589 AD, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics [of Confucianism] or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty and a brutal tyrant who ruled as Emperor Hongwu in the 14th century, requisitioned many thousands of sheets of scented, extra-soft toilet paper with which to pamper his backside.
The rest of the world, for the most part, made use of whatever was at hand: leaves, hay, moss, even seashells, stones, or snow, depending on location and season. Eventually, paper came into widespread use as a bum wipe for more than just the Chinese, although not until sometime in the 18th century with the ready availability of broadsheets, cheap novels and news flyers. This frugal re-purposing continued to be the method of choice for cleaning the bottom well into the next century.
A quick google will tell you that the toilet paper we’re familiar with, or at least similar to what we use today (when we can find it), was invented by an American, Joseph C. Gayetty, in the late 1850s, and certainly you can find advertisements for his “medicated paper” in the newspapers of the time.
In fact, Gayetty was so confident in his “discovery” that he paid for his ad to be repeated down one complete column of the New York Times – twenty-one little boxes all asserting that “its merits as a household’s, traveler’s, and cleanly person’s comfort are making it popular everywhere.” Even better than that, Gayetty claimed, it was a “sure cure for Piles, and also guarantees the healthy who may use it against any touch of that afflictive and torturing disease.” Gayetty bet his bottom dollar on the product, and even watermarked his name onto every sheet.
Gayetty, obviously, was going for more than the cleanliness angle, perhaps reasoning that if not everyone was worried about the fastidiousness of their posterior, they surely cared about their health. His paper, he asserted, manufactured from a buff-coloured fibre known as Manila hemp and treated with aloe as a lubricant, would not only relieve but prevent hemorrhoids – “this distressing complaint” – and as an added bonus it dissolved in water, and would not “choke the water pipe.” While plumbers and homeowners might have been pleased with both features, Gayetty’s medical claims for his paper drew the skepticism of the scientific community of the day.
There were plenty of dubious curative products in the 19th century, and the learned gentlemen writing in journals like The Medical and Surgical Reporter in the United States and Britain’s The Lancet poo-poo’d what they termed Gayetty’s “quackery.” The Lancet called Gayetty’s claim of a curative property an “absurdity,” and noted, mockingly, that “it might be of use to the surgeons who take the rectal region under their care to know that the prognosis, pathology, and therapeutics of this malady are simplified in an uncommon degree, and that their occupation is now gone to the Walls.” The Medical and Surgical Reporter, similarly poking fun at Gayetty’s invention, wrote that “Empirism has changed tactics. Its usual bold effrontery is turned to attack the public in the rear. Mr. Gayetty of New York intends to take advantage of them by catching them with their breeches down, and bring them to the stern necessity of buying his “medicated paper for the water closet.”” And if that wasn’t enough ridicule, the Reporter included a delicious quote from The New Orleans Medical and Hospital Gazette, suggesting that poor Mr. Gayetty “not only place his autograph on each sheet of his invaluable paper … but that he furnish his millions of patrons with his photograph, in like manner. … We are really anxious to see the face of the man who is going to eclipse even homeopathy in the inestimable benefits he thus rubs into mankind; and then, again, it would be such a capital idea to be thus cheering up the sufferer by smiling on the very seat of his troubles.”
One wonders how Mr. Gayetty could hold his head up in public, as the butt of such ridicule. Yet his papers remained for sale in their tidy little packets, bought, used and subsequently flushed, until the 1920s. In the meantime, others had moved into the toilet paper market, although most companies focused on the wipes as an aid to hygiene rather than as curative marvels.
Before long, Mr. Gayetty’s boastful ads were joined by others touting the unmedicated sister product, plain old toilet paper (or the more delicate bathroom tissue), with names like Lion and Mouser – presumably they were “kitten soft”. Each manufacturer took a slightly different approach to selling the product, but most seemed to agree with the buying public that toilet paper fell within the realm of the unmentionable. Customers sidled up to the druggist’s counter and asked for the paper on the sly, and the druggist, complicit, surreptitiously slid the bum wad from its shelf out of sight below the counter and into a bag as if it were poop itself.
By the time ScotTissue ads appeared suggesting that customers need only murmur the brand name to their shopkeeper to have their nether-wipe wishes understood, toilet paper had undergone a transformation. People had choices. One could purchase one’s TP as a packet of stacked sheets, often with handy wire attached that allowed for hanging within easy reach of the loo, or as a single long strand, conveniently perforated to allow for easy tear-off of the required amount, and all spun tidily onto a cardboard roll. TheBrooklyn Daily Eagle’s January, 1895 edition ran a full page advertisement for the “sterling” department store Abraham and Straus listing its many products for those of impeccable taste: Alaska Sable full Circular Capes and Japanese Silk Piano Draperies, as well as “The Regent” toilet paper in roll form and “The Brooklyn” in sheets. Toilet paper had finally come out of the water closet, or perhaps in from the outhouse.
It would seem that a new age had begun, and yet, there was room for improvement. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Northern Tissue Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin advertised quilted toilet paper, but even more importantly than its supposed softness was its assurance to be “100% splinter free.” Oh.
Stay safe, everyone. And if there is toilet paper on the shelves of your store, buy only what you need.
The Lancet, October 1869
The Medical and Surgical Reporter, Vol . 1, No. 22
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 January, 1895
Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper, by Richard Smyth, Souvenir Press, September, 2017.
As the fight against COVID-19 carries on, I continue to see links with the Spanish flu pandemic, and increasingly with wartime itself. Some of you will know that while The Cowkeeper’s Wish tells the story of our maternal side, including the WW1 period, our first book together, The Occupied Garden, tells the story of our father’s family in The Netherlands in WW2.
Recently my aunt wrote to our family group that she and a cousin had shared the feelings they were re-experiencing from war. They were little children then, but wise enough to sense the fear and the tension that came from not knowing what would happen next. “Several times [lately] I have thought of our parents,” she wrote to my dad and her other siblings. “Mom in 1940 with three little ones and pregnant with a fourth. And now I understand more than ever Dad not willing to give up his radio [though forbidden by the occupiers], each day hoping to gain some knowledge about their near future.”
For people living under occupation, radios were a lifeline to the world outside, and to hopeful news about defeating the enemy. Can you imagine the times we are living through now, and how we would feel if we didn’t have radio or the internet or news of our progress in battling the virus? Much of the news is bleak, of course, and worse yet, false, so we need to be as careful consuming it as we are about washing our hands.
Last week Health Canada issued a warning about “drugs, natural health products, homeopathic products and medical devices … that make false or misleading claims to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19.” Dubious advice includes everything from drinking cow urine or bleach to consuming Chaga mushrooms and Vitamin C. The World Health Organization’s myth-busters page tells us “No. Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body.” And also states that “Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.” And while a bubble bath is a lovely way to relax and calm your nerves in troubled times — and also to get clean! — “Taking a hot bath will not prevent you from catching COVID-19.”
Revisiting 1918 via the newspaper archives, I see that plenty of ads turn up promising influenza cures. There was Dr. Chase’s Menthol Bag, which you pinned to the chest of your underclothes. “The heat from the body causes the menthol fumes to rise and mingle with the air you breathe, thereby killing the germs and protecting you against Spanish influenza and all infectious diseases.” Dr. Chase also offered “Nerve Food” to strengthen the heart, as well as Syrup of Linseed and Turpentine for the throat and bronchial tubes.
And there were Evans’ Pastilles, “made from a private formula … and free from poisonous alkaloids.” The ads warned that the flu thrived in heated, crowded theatres, but “the ill-effects of the germ attacks can be neutralised if one or two Evans’ Pastilles are allowed to dissolve in the mouth when the danger threatens.” Likewise there were “dainty white tablets” called Formamints, so harmless that “children and infants can take them freely,” and yet so powerful that they “destroy the most harmful bacteria that can menace life.”
A writer in the Whitby Gazette reported hearing from a distinguished London doctor that “a raw onion in a fever-stricken room soon decays, because it attracts the germs.” Another writer boasted in the Hamilton Advertiser that he ate a steady diet of onions, and “did not get the ‘flue’ in the recent epidemic; but,” he admitted, “there are others who
neither had onions nor the Spanish influenza.” A reader wrote in to the Coventry Telegraph, advising everyone to “eat two small onions, uncooked, every night, as a fine preventive. The efficacy of an onion is too well-known to need much persuasion.”
Interviewed years after her WW1 service, the Canadian nurse Mabel Lucas recalled her younger sister falling ill with influenza. Mabel was still overseas, and relieved that one of her old classmates had offered to care for the girl. “When she found out that they said there was no hope for her, she said ‘Can I do what I want to do?’ The doctor said, ‘Anything that you think will help.’ She made onion poultices and put them on [my sister’s] back and chest and even on the bottom of her feet. She kept them on for days. When I came home and would give her a bath, I could still smell onions. It was right in the pores. … She lived for years afterwards.'”
So, she survived the wars — both the First World War and the war against influenza.
In our family email group, perhaps inspired by my aunt’s reawakened memories of wartime Holland, my cousin made an interesting analogy regarding “Us Against COVID-19.” There are the people she calls “unseen heroes” — ordinary people who shop for friends and strangers in quarantine, or make food for others working long and extra stressful hours, or come up with ingenious ways to battle the enemy. And there are the collaborators, the people who refuse to stay in self-isolation or quarantine, who lie about where they’ve been or what their symptoms are, or who buy up large amounts of supplies: toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves, with a plan to resell them online for a profit.
Then of course there are the resistance fighters: the healthcare workers and the truck drivers and the grocery store employees and the cleaners; the firefighters and the police and the postal workers; the gas station employees and the farmers and the staff at longterm care homes. The list goes on and on for the people who are on the front lines in varying ways, potentially exposing themselves to the virus every day, but providing essential services for the rest of us.
British Newspaper Archive
National Library of Medicine
Globe & Mail Historical Newspaper Archive, Toronto Public Library
People are social animals. Generally, we like to be together, and whether that means sitting quietly with one person or moving through a street filled with many, self-isolation and quarantine and social distancing are difficult things for most of us to do. In an effort to combat the unnatural feel of being without the casual contact of our fellow man, people all over the world have been bridging the gap in creative ways. Famous musicians, comedians and artists, self-isolating like everyone else, have shared livestream performances from their living rooms. Ordinary people, practicing social distancing, have sung from balconies in Montreal, Edmonton and New York, and applauded from windowsills in European cities in tribute to healthcare workers. In Scotland, mothers organized the I Spy a Rainbow movement that has housebound children pasting artwork in windows to uplift spirits. All these efforts show how much people need to feel a part of a community, and how they want to contribute something of value in a time of crisis.
Recently a request circulated in the community where I live, generated by our small hospital, asking for anyone with sewing skills and material at hand to make face masks for use by healthcare workers. A pattern was shared, and has done the rounds via social media and emails. Elsewhere, similar efforts are ongoing. My sister wrote from Toronto about a friend who has turned her talents as a seamstress (she owns a yoga clothing company called Dear Lil’ Devas) to making masks. My other sister wrote from Peterborough about a woman she knows who works from home as an energy and sustainability analyst for architects and building planners, but who has broken out the needle and thread and started stitching face masks.
People everywhere, it seems, want to do something useful. It was not much different in 1918, when Spanish flu ravaged a world already on its knees after years of war and conflict. The Red Cross on both sides of the Atlantic encouraged the sewing of homemade masks, and a newspaper in California declared them “absolutely necessary to safeguard citizens against the further spread of the epidemic.” In Boston, the commissioner of health urged citizens to “make any kind of mask, any kind of covering for the nose and mouth and use it immediately and at all times,” and that city’s Daily Globe newspaper shared instructions on the making of gauze masks. In England, the Evening Telegraph and Post reported that the Red Cross Society was “busy making anti-influenza masks to cover the mouth and nostrils.” They were for the use of soldiers “returning to the Colonies [and would be] worn on the voyage.” Here in Canada, the Alberta government made wearing masks in public compulsory, while in Regina, Saskatchewan, where the masks were not mandatory, a person could be fined for coughing, sneezing or spitting in public.
Not everyone thought the masks a good idea. In San Francisco, a dispute over masks turned violent when Henry Miller, a deputy health officer, shot a horse-shoer named James Wisser in front of a drug store when he refused to don a face mask. Wisser was taken to hospital with a gunshot wound to his leg and there placed under arrest for failing to obey Miller’s order.
In Canada, opinion was also divided, with some provinces making face mask use mandatory and others not. Lloydminster, a municipality straddling the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, had the unique dilemma of two opposing laws in effect in the same town. As the Edmonton Journal reported, “when a number of the citizens of Lloydminster, Sask., crossed the street and came into Lloydminster, Alberta without masks, they were summoned to court. Despite the fact that they claimed only to have strolled over for casual errands of business or pleasure, they were fined for violating the law, and went back to their own side of the street in indignation.”
Nor could the medical community agree on who should use a face mask. Dr. Thomas Whitelaw, Medical Officer of Health for Edmonton, wrote in the December 1919 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal that even after the Alberta government ordered everyone to wear a mask outside their homes, the number of cases continued to increase, and, he alleged, “public confidence in it as a prevention soon gave place to ridicule.”
Dr. Henry Bracken, Secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Health, encouraged the wearing of masks by the public, and the Board issued instruction for the use of the masks. “The outside of a face mask is marked with a black thread woven into it. Always wear this side away from the face. Wear the mask to cover the nose and the mouth, tying two tapes around the head above the ears. Tie the other tapes rather tightly around the neck. Never wear the mask of another person. When the mask is removed … it should be carefully folded with the inside folded in, immediately boiled and disinfected. When the mask is removed by one seeking to protect himself from the influenza it should be folded with the inside folded out and boiled ten minutes. Persons considerably exposed to the disease should boil their masks at least once a day.” Despite this advocacy, though, Dr. Bracken himself chose not to wear one, saying “I personally prefer to take my chances.”
So are the homemade masks a good idea? One hundred plus years after the debates of 1918, opinion remains divided. Now, as then, there will be those who feel as Dr. Bracken did, and who will make the choice to go without. At the same time, people will come together, however virtually, to share their face mask patterns and know-how, to join in song or tell a story or draw a picture. And at the end of the day, we can take heart from the caption written on a Scottish child’s rainbow drawing: smiles are contagious.
I’m sure everyone has stepped up contact with family members in the last while. We’ve been hearing from my husband’s relatives in the UK and in other parts of Ontario, and from my family too, here in Canada and in the Netherlands. Several of the notes that have come have mentioned nature, and how birds are singing and geese are honking, oblivious to the turmoil. A good friend who lives in Manchester tells me she has been working in her garden, and it made me realize how anxious I am for spring, because digging in the earth and helping things grow is such a soothing pastime. (And this morning I read a beautiful essay reminding me that even when the television is “full of terror … the trees are full of music.”)
My father and his wife are in Guatemala right now, on their sailboat. They live aboard, traveling the world, and made it into the country just before its borders closed. “Today was the first day of the curfew starting at 4 p.m.,” my dad wrote yesterday to our wider family group, “and although a busy high bridge towers over the Rio Dulce not far away and we are surrounded by marinas, not a thing is moving on land or on the water except the odd toucan, a pair of parakeets and assorted other birds. It is eerily quiet.”
Dad suggested a group of us — aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings — check in with each other every couple of days, since we are a far-flung lot. My mom and her husband are in Portugal, due home Friday, and we have all been eagerly anticipating their safe return. This morning she wrote to the group, “We are anxious to get back home to all the snow, which is the reason we leave in the winter!! Everything is in lockdown here and has been for about a week. First of all the schools and universities all closed, then the store, bars, restaurants. Some outdoor patios stayed open for a few days as long as people sat far apart, but now everything is closed. They are being very strict about it. Grocery stores are open but fewer people are there. There are big signs everywhere warning people to keep a distance and to look at the products and choose only what you want, and buy only what you need. Do not handle things. There are no attendants at the deli counter, only packaged things to choose from. There are big plexiglass screens shielding the cashiers and only cards are accepted, no cash. There are red signs on the floor for cash lineups showing how far apart you must be. Pharmacies will only let one or two people in at a time. When one person goes out, one can go in. In the lineup outside people are 2 metres apart. The post office is like that too. There are only 6 apartments occupied in our hotel now and when we go out to get groceries we have to ring to be let in. We cannot stay in the room when the maid comes. She is wearing a mask and we have go out until she is finished.”
Even though I’m in my 50s now, I’m used to my parents worrying about me. It’s weird to have the tables turned. But the emails help. And in our day and age we’re lucky enough to have facetime too. My teenage daughter can still hang out with her friends this way. All of this brings to mind how essential letters must have been a century ago for people separated by war, though the missives had to float slowly back and forth across the ocean, and sometimes all kinds of things had changed by the time the letters got read. When the influenza pandemic began in 1918, new worries piled on to the worries that had already existed for years. Snooping through the wonderful Canadian Letters & Images Project, I found a treasure trove of photos and letters connected to a soldier named Cecil Moody, who enlisted in 1915 and served with a Field Ambulance unit until the end of the war. He had a wife he called Budsie back home in Canada, and a little boy nicknamed Bobs. The collection contains almost 40 letters, but the one below is especially touching, and gives a glimpse into how the flu pandemic impacted medical workers’ already challenging duties.
Les Fermont, South of Arras, June 29, 1918
Although you let a week slip by without writing, I can fully forgive you for the dandy snaps you sent. I was ever so pleased with them girlie. Isn’t wee Bobs getting to be a big boy. Lord! He will be as big as his Dad if I don’t soon get home. And you are looking to sweet for words Dearie. The boys that I have showed the picture to all say what a peach of a looking girl you are. And really Hon. I am so wonderfully proud of you when anybody pays you a compliment; it always makes me feel as though it had been paid to myself.
You’re some little tailoress too Budsie. Bob’s clothes look awfully cute. You must feel jolly proud of yourself, turning the wee chap out so smartly.
Well, you will notice that I too have missed a week in writing, but my excuse is good, and an honest one. Our ambulance base covered more miles in the last two weeks than they have since we have been in France. We have had three or four moves in the last two weeks, but apart from that, we have been running day and night, hauling Spanish Flu patients. I guess you have read in the papers about the influenza plague. Well, we are certainly getting our share of it in France now. Harry has been in the Hospital for the last two or three days, but he is OK again. Now, it’s nothing really serious, but by gosh, a man is almighty sick for a couple of days. I think Fritz’s army is also suffering from the plague from the reports of the prisoners taken lately. In fact, it is rumoured that that was the reason their offensive was given up. …
Well Hon, we are back in the line again after the longest rest our division has had since we have been in France. We all have to break ourselves in again, but we are on a very quiet front, so unless something starts up, we shall have a very “cushy” time. In the last 13 days, our old bus has travelled just over 1300 miles! Most of the rips have been short ones, but numerous. … We have been sleeping in our cars for a long time, but we don’t like to take chances now that we are hauling so many flu patients. I think that is how Harry caught it.
… No, I’m afraid there is slim chance of my ever getting back to you Darling, until this damn war finishes up. How I would love to be with you again. But I couldn’t bear to come home for for a couple of months and then have to leave you again. I would much rather wait until I can have you again for “Keeps”.
Poor old Harry. If there’s ever any sickness going around, it always seems to attach itself to him. His chances of returning to Canada seem pretty slim now. He has not heard anymore.
Buds, why don’t you write a little letter to me from Bobs. You have never even mentioned whether he has received any of the little notes I have enclosed in your letters. You can ask him what he wants to say and write it for him. Don’t suggest anything – just see what he would say on his own accord. Where did he get the wee tricycle? Can he ride it alright? …
Well old sweetheart, I must say Au Revoir. If you miss one week in writing Dear, make the next letter twice as long. I love to get your letters so much. Have you noticed any of my letters missing? I still number them. All my love to you precious girl, and a big kiss. Love too to Bobs.
Lately in the news there have been stories about hospital ships being brought into action to help ease the burden on regular hospitals; about distilleries making hand sanitizer especially for police and healthcare workers; and about automotive companies producing ventilators instead of car parts. There’s even been speculation that a certain high-end parka manufacturer might begin churning out hospital gowns.
Each time I hear these stories, as well as today’s announcement that the Canadian government will help businesses “re-tool” to produce the supplies we need, I am reminded of my WW1 research, both for The Cowkeeper’s Wish with Tracy, and for my new book, still in the early stages, about patients and staff at a military hospital here in Toronto in the First World War.
In those days, all sorts of factories had transformed to produce munitions, but there were countless other changes too. Fancy shoemakers made army boots, milliners made military caps, and tailors made uniforms instead of ordinary suits and overcoats. Passenger ships became troop carriers or floating hospitals. Car manufacturers made military vehicles, and rubber tire producers made gas masks and balloons for reconnaissance. Even cardboard box manufacturers were affected by war: boxes of all sizes were now needed for care parcels for soldiers and sailors, for the boots and shoes and hats that made up their uniforms, for the medals that got pinned to them and for the ammunition they used. Cardboard discs hung in windows, proudly announcing that the man who lived there was off fighting for king and country.
Though the Spanish flu pandemic that surged in this period differed from the current outbreak, I feel somewhat comforted to dip back in time and explore how an earlier generation coped with worry and fear, and what sorts of decisions were made to try to slow the spread. Their pandemic rushed in at the end of a horrific war, and ours comes in the midst of environmental despair. Many people seem to be feeling a weird clash of emotions. On one hand, we’re only just recognizing an obvious but beautiful fact as the virus drifts across borders: we really are all in the same boat. Italy seems close when you can sit at your computer in Canada and hear people singing from their balconies, in isolation together. At the same time we’re dismayed by what we’ve collectively done to the planet that holds us. A sense of despair was also there a century ago, as the war was ending: people likened influenza to a deadly wind blowing about the earth as a kind of punishment.
According to Howard Phillips, the author of Black October, “many people were convinced that [the flu pandemic] must somehow have been connected with the war. Thus, in Entente countries, tags coined included ‘war plague,’ ‘Flanders grippe,’ ‘Hun flu,’ ‘Turco-Germanic bacterial criminal enterprise’ and ‘German plague,’ as many believed that the war-epidemic link lay in the unburied corpses on the battlefields or the dastardly use of poison gas. ‘So many were killed in the great war of the white people’, explained indigenous healers in faraway Southern Rhodesia, ‘that the blood of the dead caused this great sickness,’ while in the memory of one elderly flu survivor sixty years later, the war ‘poisoned the air … all the bombs and things … travelled with the wind [around the world].’
There were three waves of the pandemic then, just as there are expected to be subsequent waves of Covid 19. In January 1920, two years after the original outbreak, the death of a young Toronto boy prompted the Star headline “Is flu back again?” Over the course of the month, both the Star and the Globe reported on large outbreaks south of the border with such increasing alarm that it soon seemed inevitable the epidemic would return, swirling over the city like frenzied snowflakes, and falling wherever it chose. In Chicago, California-bound trains were “crowded to the limit” with people fleeing to escape flu. And in Detroit, the coroner announced the county morgue was “filled to its capacity with bodies. … If bodies continue coming in as they have in the last two days extra arrangements for their care will have to be made.” Ads appeared in Toronto papers for cure-alls like Hamlin’s Wizard Oil: snuff it up the nose at the first sign of a cough or sore throat and you could stop the symptoms from turning into “dangerous influenza.” By the end of January, there were “more than 500 cases of flu at the border,” as one headline put it, characterizing the illness as a band of murderers poised to invade.
In all likelihood we are in for a long and difficult ride that will impact all of our lives in a variety of ways. Hopefully we manage to lean on each other, without touching, of course. A friend of mine — the writer Phil Dwyer — recently posted some wise words.
“Trying times test us. In our responses, we show who we really are.”
This pretty card is among Nettie’s pictures and letters at CLIP. Strange how an image of grasped hands reads differently right now.
One of my favourite resources for first-person material from the First World War is The Canadian Letters & Images Project, which features scanned images of letters, diaries, photographs and ephemera, and defines itself as “an online archive of the Canadian war experience.” It was an obvious place to look to further our series of posts on the influenza pandemic that happened more than a century ago. Featured below, with thanks to CLIP, is a letter from Jeanette “Nettie” Bridges to her mother back home in New Brunswick. Nettie was a VAD stationed at a hospital in Reading, Berkshire, when she contracted influenza in October 1918. She had only recently married a Canadian soldier.
The story has a happy ending: Nettie and her husband survived both the pandemic and the war, and returned home to raise a family in Canada. But reading Nettie’s words reminds me how grateful we must be to the healthcare workers looking after our most vulnerable just now, all across the globe. A dear old friend of mine works in public health in Ottawa; my niece is working in a hospital as part of her nursing studies; and another good friend and neighbour works in the emergency room of a busy Toronto hospital. This post goes out to them and their ilk as a small way of saying thank you.
Now wasn’t it just like me to be one of the influenza victims, but when I tell you that one third of the staff on night duty & a great many on day duty are down with it you would probably have been more surprised if I had escaped.
I never felt better in my life than I did last Thursday just a week to-morrow. We went for a long ride on the top of a tram that morning before we went to bed and the air was beautiful. I was so well wrapped up too. had a sweater under my great coat & the latter has a nice big opossum collar on it now. Went on duty that night feeling fine Friday morning about 5 o’clock my throat began to feel raw, but I didn’t think much of it. At 7:30 just when we come off duty I felt a bit shivery so took a dose of quinine as we had been told to do if we felt that way as a precaution (two of our staff at least of no.3 where Mary is had died of influenza and pneumonia a week before and everyone was being very careful).
After breakfast I told Mary I thought I would go right to bed as I didn’t feel extra well, I kept getting hotter and hotter and by 10.30 my temperature was 101 so by 1.30 I was in a bed down here (they send one of the hospital ambulances for me).
The Sisters Sick Quarters or Sick Hut is down at No.1 and consists of 2 little hut wards of 5 beds each very cosy with a nice bright fire burning in the grate day and night. Pretty chinez sheets and little rose puffs on the bed, so it is very comfortable would be very lonely to be in a ward alone as no one is allowed in to see us but as the other beds are occuppied by 2 V.A.D’s & 2 Sisters we keep each other company.
Mary and Marion send me flowers & grapes or something each morning and bring my letters down to me but I’m not allowed to see them, so far they have both escaped. …
I was glad everyone was pleased with the wedding especially Mr & Mrs Mackay & you and father. you are really the only ones that count.
We are very well looked after here – a day nurse and a night nurse both from the London hospital Whitechapel where Stanley was. They had to send to London for help as none of our staff could be spared to nurse us. The medical officer (same one that looks after the offices) comes in to see us morning and evening and we have every attention. The pain in my head legs and back was something desperate and you have a cough. On Sunday I developed bronchitis which was quite natural knowing me tendency in that direction. I have an inhaler every four hours of eucalyptis and benzoine am really all better now and if I was home would be up, but in the army you have to do as you re told. Have been on chicken diet and actually get it for my lunch each day. I will probably be allowed to sit up by the fire tomorrow afternoon.
The Influenza epidemic has been dreadful all over England. So many of the officers in our hospital here have had it and lots of the Tommies down where I was that’s when I caught it, as I was looking after dozens who had it.
By the time you get this I will be up and as fit as ever so don’t worry about me. The rest in bed is great.
I don’t think I will get many wedding presents till I get home. The chest of silver will be perfect but I think will wait till I get back.
Tea has come in so I must stop. We have lovely thin bread and butter and jam and tea at 4.30. …
A great deal of love to you and father and I do hope you have a good maid by now.
Men wearing masks during the Spanish flu epidemic. Alberta, Canada, 1918. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada.
Given the bizarre situation the world finds itself in of late, Tracy and I thought it might be interesting to do a series of posts about the influenza pandemic that swept through the world a century or so ago, right at the end of the First World War. We’ll search out old photographs, diary entries and letters, as well as newspaper accounts and advertisements, to see how people responded to the outbreak in a time vastly different than our own. Since the middle part of The Cowkeeper’s Wishdelves deeply into the First World War period, the flu came up time and again in our research. So to start off our series of posts, here’s an excerpt from the story. It begins in 1918, when our great uncle Ernie, then 13, was sent from London to stay with family on a farm in Laindon.
Small Ernie was a fish out of water in Laindon, a green place dotted with farms and hedgerows, and where the fields were covered in pale pink cuckoo flowers and dancing dog-daisies. Instead of the familiar city noises of traffic and too many people, there were the barnyard grunts and snuffles of livestock, and the solitary sound of your own footsteps on gravel paths. At night, there was absolute quiet except for the chirp of crickets in the long grass outside the house, or the thrum of rain on the roof’s wooden shingles. Ernie slept in an unheated room in the attic where silverfish clung to the damp rafters, and although he shared the chores with cousin Percy, … to Ernie fell the worst jobs, like mucking out the pigpen. In the eyes of a 13-year-old as fastidious as Ernie, farm life surely seemed a lot like a punishment.
Ernie wasn’t the only Londoner discovering the charms of rural life. With three million men away fighting, and women filling the jobs they’d previously held, it seemed only sensible to the men at the Board of Agriculture that women could also be encouraged to undertake agricultural work. Those farmers still on the land, though, were reluctant to accept female workers, expecting that they would not be capable of performing the physically demanding work, while women themselves, particularly rural women, saw farm labour as a step below even domestic service. Recruiters decided to target the urban middle class, and organizations such as the Women’s Defense Relief Corps had some early success, advertising the work as a holiday for women to try their hand at haymaking, fruit picking, and harvesting, while the Women’s Farm and Garden Union offered free training on gardening and farming techniques.
By 1916, with food shortages an increasing problem, it became apparent that a more concerted effort would have to be put into recruiting female labour. Under the auspices of the newly created Department for Food Production, the Women’s Land Army was formed, and advertisements began to appear nudging women to their agricultural duty. “God Speed the Plough and the Woman Who Drives It,” read the caption below one poster. It depicted a woman guiding a horse-drawn plough against a golden sunrise, as if the call were not just patriotic but divine. At a rally in London, crowds turned out to watch the spectacle of a parade of tractors driven by ladies. At another, women carried rakes, hoes and other farm implements, and banners fluttered, declaring “We Are All Fit,” and “The Lasses are Massing for the Spring Offensive.” The women who volunteered for the Land Army were outfitted by the Department with high boots, a knee-length tunic, a felt hat with a round brim to keep the sun off of fair skin, and breeches. The Land Army Handbook, issued to all members, felt it prudent to make this cautionary statement: “You are doing a man’s work and so you’re dressed rather like a man, but remember just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like a British girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.” Although the papers claimed they looked “particularly well” in their mannish garb, not everyone was so admiring. In one village, locals threw stones at the arriving Land Army recruits, because they disapproved of women wearing pants.
Laindon, too, had its Land Army girls. One girl assigned to milk and care for the cows at a dairy farm later recalled the early morning walk through the dark fields from the house where she was billeted. She munched bread and jam as she went, and eyed the bobbing glow of hurricane lamps as others also picked their way between shrubs and along mud paths to work. A day off was unheard of, but she and the rest of the Land Army girls were allowed to attend the Sunday service at St. Nicholas, the little church on the hill at the centre of the village. Tired from her early starts and the hard work, she often “simply could not keep awake,” and was caught napping on several occasions. …
Like Ernie, the Land Army girls had been displaced by circumstances beyond their control. Although they were here in Laindon to do their bit for the war, they were likely no less lonely than Ernie, and could attest to the truthfulness of the words spoken by the Minister of Agriculture, Rowland Prothero, in a speech in London: “It is hard work – fatiguing, back-aching, monotonous, dirty work in all sorts of weather.… The accommodation is rough, and those who undertake it have to face physical discomforts.… There is no romance in it; it is prose.”
He might have been speaking of Ernie’s reality too. Ernie wasn’t a shirker, but he was physically small, and preferred wielding a paint brush to lugging a slop bucket. He’d never known animals, and pigs were much larger and stronger close up than one would expect them to be. There are hints that his relatives had little confidence in his abilities. And perhaps, with all he’d been through since the day he’d watched his father keel over while polishing his shoes, Ernie hadn’t quite come into his own. Despite growing up in some of the dirtiest areas of London, he’d always been meticulous, careful to wash his hands and keep his shoes polished, and a future among the pigpens of Aunt Ada’s farm must have been hard to accept. Whether he, like the Land Army girls, found encouragement in the words of the appeal posters tacked to the walls behind postmasters’ counters countrywide – “Make your motto ‘Forward!’ and stick to it like glue” – at the end of the day, curled in a blanket in his attic room, Ernie was miserable.
Yet Laindon was a safer place to be than London when the Spanish Lady came to call. A particularly virulent and deadly strain of influenza, the illness was labeled Spanish simply because neutral Spain reported her cases freely, while those countries still at war at first gave it little press. The outbreak almost certainly did not originate in Spain, but the name – Spanish flu or Spanish lady – stuck, and the illness gained yet more monikers. The Purple Death was one, on account of its victims developing heliotrope cyanosis and turning the shade of amethyst as the person suffocated, choking on thick scarlet jelly that filled the lungs. Death came quickly. Dr. Roy Grist, a Glasgow physician, described the course of the flu in a letter to a colleague, saying that it started almost benignly, with what appeared to be an ordinary case of “la grippe” – sore throat, headache and fever. But within hours, patients “very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen…. A few hours later you can begin to see cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face…. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes. It is horrible.”
In Britain, the illness first appeared in Glasgow in May 1918, and traveled south by June. Crowded London was hit hard. Its citizens and myriad wartime visitors were pressed together on trams, in movie theatres, in workplaces, in overfull, substandard housing, and moved cheek by jowl through the streets, so it was inevitable that London and the bigger towns and cities would bear the brunt. Hospitals were already overflowing with war casualties, nurses and doctors were overworked, and incredibly, this particular virus preferred those in the prime of life to the very young or the very old, so soldiers and sailors were easy targets, especially since they lived and worked in such close quarters. At first, there was uncertainty about what the illness actually was, with some newspapers attributing it to “trench fever” brought back from the front, since it had similar characteristics such as sudden fever, headache and sore muscles. Others referred to it as a “mystery disease,” labeling it a plague, or a form of malaria. One London newspaper went so far as to suggest that the disease was “directly traceable to the German use of poison gas, the after effects of which have induced growth of a new type of streptococcus,” while American rumours said it was some kind of germ warfare started by German agents put ashore in U-boats. Yet another paper took an oddly humourous angle, dubbing London “the city of sneezes,” and reporting that everyone seemed to be “carrying on a kind of sneezing competition as to the number of times he or she can ‘T-s-c-h’ in the course of a day…. There is one strange coincidence, however, about this sneezing epidemic,” the article continued with its tongue firmly in cheek. “It synchronizes with the outbreak of [ready-made] suits. Troubles never come singly.”
The flu carried its victims off almost haphazardly, taking a half-dozen or more from a school, twice that from the workhouse, an entire family elsewhere. Cinemas and pubs closed their doors, and few shops other than the druggists’ had a line-up. City streets were sprayed with disinfectant, and people tied handkerchiefs over mouths and noses to keep the flu at bay. Advertisers, seeing an opportunity to sell their products to a public hoping to avoid contracting the illness, climbed aboard the influenza cart. Everything from mints to beef teas was touted by their makers as having curative or preventative properties. Consuming Oxo Beef Cubes would “fortif[y] the system against influenza infection,” while gargling a single tablespoon of Condy’s Remedial Fluid mixed with water was billed as both a “prevention and cure.” The Dunlop Rubber Tyre Company placed ads that showed a man on a bicycle, and stretched rather far to make a link: “If the influenza fiend has had its grip on you, let your bicycle help you to throw it off. Get out into the fresh air whenever you can and ride gently along…. Dunlop tyres … mean no troublesome tyre worries to interfere with your bicycle cure.”
Despite the dubious link, Ernie would have enjoyed the Dunlop tyre claim, and in Laindon he probably took every chance to follow the company’s advice to ride. Ernie had been an avid roller-skater back in his old Marshalsea Road neighbourhood, so the move to a bicycle was a natural progression, and all his life he would love to cycle. A photo taken several years later attests to his comfort on two wheels. He slumps casually on the seat of a sturdy bicycle, one hand dangling at his side, the other resting on the handlebar. His right foot sits on the raised pedal, his pant leg is tucked into a sock so as not to get caught in the chain; the other foot is planted on the ground, holding his balance. Dressed in a wool jacket, vest and tie and with a flat cap shading his eyes from the slanting sun, he gazes steadily at the camera. In most other early photos of Ernie, there is a Chaplin-esque look about him – a thin-shouldered vulnerability that lifts off the paper – but in this single shot, that quality is absent, replaced by a confident, relaxed demeanor.