Flu Pandemic 1918: Cars, chauffeurs & transit

Part 10

Early in the pandemic, my husband and I bought a car. We live in Toronto, close to all forms of transit, and have never felt the need to have one. For reasons unrelated to COVID-19, we finally purchased. We wanted to get out to the country more often and explore the possibility of living there, and our daughter has reached driving age, so it all seemed to make good sense.

The man we purchased from told us business had been booming. He said people were buying simply because they didn’t want to take transit anymore. We were stunned. It seems the trend has continued to grow. Months later, my husband was recently at the dealership again and there were no cars on view. He asked the fellow there why that was, and he answered that they couldn’t keep them in stock. So when I stumbled on this little ad from a 1918 newspaper, it struck me as yet another parallel between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu.

Indianapolis Star, 24 November 1918

One thing always leads to another when snooping around in a newspaper archive. This article from around the same time reports on “Washington Society Women Working Day and Night as Emergency Chauffeurs.”

Washington Times, Oct 28, 1918

If the worst comes to the worst and they need a job in a hurry, more than a hundred of Washington’s most prominent women can qualify as first-class chauffeurs.

Volunteering their cars and their own services as drivers at the beginning of the Spanish influenza epidemic, they have been on duty both night and day driving doctors and nurses to the homes of influenza sufferers, carrying hot food from relief stations and performing all sorts of errands to speed up the work of all the various organizations engaged in fighting influenza.

So far their batting average is somewhere around 1,000. They have demonstrated that they are afraid of nothing, from influenza germs to flat tires, and after more than two weeks of “chauffing” experience, they can drive to any city address … without ever deigning to consult a city street directory.

These women … report each day at the Webster School, Tenth and H streets northwest. Some work all day, some several hours, others work in emergency.

At the school they wait for a job in much the same fashion as a taxi driver reports to his headquarters. One assignment may be to rush a doctor to a dying patient, another to take a nurse to a “case.”

Some drivers are exclusively for taking food to patients. They report to the school fill up their car with thermos bottles containing bouillon, milk or liquid nourishment, and proceed to distribute the bottles to a list of addresses with which they are furnished. This work necessitates going into the homes of influenza sufferers. Many war workers living in boarding and rooming houses with no one to care for them, not sufficiently ill to be removed to a hospital, are fed three times a day in this manner. …

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Library of Congress

And finally here’s another transit-related find from Toronto around the same time:

Toronto Star, 21 Feb, 1920

(By the way, we still take transit! We wear our masks and use our sanitizer and keep our distance.)