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.
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.”
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. …
And finally here’s another transit-related find from Toronto around the same time:
(By the way, we still take transit! We wear our masks and use our sanitizer and keep our distance.)
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.
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.