Oct. 25-31, 1918

1918 Influenza Pandemic

Oct. 25

Crocheted all day, made a whole doily today, Billy Cooper was here for supper. Edgar and Gerald came and asked us if we wanted to go for a ride after store closed. went to Harry Pershing’s, looked at catalogues and the boys ordered some rings, went to bed at 11:30. Joe Daley died tonight.

Oct. 26

Done the saturday work, made another doily, the yarn came for my sweater and we got 6 in. done. went to bed at 10:30.

Oct. 27

Time changes today. Longest day ever witnessed – had song service after breakfast. Edgar came after some milk for Mr. Bentson, read, Margaret and Harriet came just as I started to get dinner, had dinner at 3, popped corn, Harriet played and we sang went home with M & H and heard that Mrs. Federson died at noon. Edgar and Gerald came at 6:30. had supper at 9. popped some more corn and had cracker jack. Floss and I got more than our share of prizes, went to bed at 12.

Oct. 28

Made a doily and knitted a lot on my sweater. went to be at 7.

Oct. 29

Washed, knitted and read. took my music lesson.

Oct. 30

Ironed, got to the neck of my sweater – going some cleaned up, made a banana pie, Edgar and Gerald came had pie and candy at 11. to bed at 12.

Oct. 31

Nearly to the front purling on my sweater, read, cleaned up. Halloween night and nothing doing on acct of the “Flu.” Different from last year. Har! Har! Practiced ¾ hr. snowed today.


A young Joe Daley

The death count continues. On October 25, Joe Daley passed away. Joe was only 19 years old. This was what was so scary about this particular influenza. Usually, society’s most vulnerable, those under five and over 75 years old, succumb to influenza. But with this strain, a huge spike in deaths was among the young and healthy.

According to the History Channel,

Not only was it shocking that healthy young men and women were dying by the millions worldwide, but it was also how they were dying. Struck with blistering fevers, nasal hemorrhaging and pneumonia, the patients would drown in their own fluid-filled lungs. Only decades later were scientists able to explain the phenomenon now known as “cytokine explosion.” When the human body is being attacked by a virus, the immune system sends messenger proteins called cytokines to promote helpful inflammation. But some strains of the flu, particularly the H1N1 strain responsible for the Spanish flu outbreak, can trigger a dangerous immune overreaction in healthy individuals. In those cases, the body is overloaded with cytokines leading to severe inflammation and the fatal buildup of fluid in the lungs.

Also this was the deadliest month for the United States. In October alone, 195,000 died. That number might mean something more now that the US is reporting deaths from Covid-19.

Billy Cooper comes over for supper. In 1910, Billy’s dad Lloyd was a bachelor, living in Denver. By 1915, he had married, they had a son Billy, his wife died, and four-year-old Billy and Lloyd moved to South Dakota, where they were borders, and Lloyd was a hired man. Lloyd did not get remarried until 1929, long after Billy had moved out.

And supper. I might as well go over that. In farming communities in the early twentieth century, it was common to refer to the main meal of the day, at midday, as dinner. Supper was later in the evening and was traditionally a lighter meal.

Eventually, as the country became more industrialized, people working in the cities and in factories could not get home for “dinner,” the main meal of the day. So gradually, the main meal and the light meal got switched, and we shifted dinner to the main meal at the end of the day.

Gerald and Edgar came over, always together. And they all went to Harry Pershing’s, who happens to be Gerald’s older brother.

Promotion for changing the clocks.

On October 27th, Clara mentions the time change. Apparently, Daylight Savings was controversial even in 1918. The very first time clocks in the US were changed was in March 1918, when we lost an hour. Then on October 27th, we gained that hour back. Other countries had adopted the time change a couple of years prior. The reasoning was to conserve fuel during World War I. This was so unpopular that the law was repealed when the war ended in 1919. In fact, President Wilson vetoed the repeal, but Congress was able to override his veto with a two-thirds vote.

The same day, Edgar came for some milk for Mr. Bentson. Family papers indicate that Clara’s father had dairy cows. And Mr. Bentson was a druggist. 

Harriet (Potter) appears to be Clara’s best friend, as they spend quite a bit of time together. Margaret (McGregor) is also sometimes around, but she is a bit younger, at 14 years old. She is sometimes called Margie.

Then another death from the influenza. Mrs. Federson dies. Loretta Federson was 31 years old.

And Cracker Jack! Cracker Jack was first sold at the Chicago’s Fair in 1893, but it was called Candied Popcorn and Peanuts. In 1896, the molasses, caramel-coated popcorn and peanut snack was renamed Cracker Jack. It comes in a box with a prize, such as rings, booklets, stickers, baseball cards. And Clara and Floss apparently got lots of prizes (Floss is Clara’s sister, who is three years younger).

Finally, Halloween was cancelled in 1918. This reminds me of the cancellation of most St. Patrick’s Day celebrations the weekend of March 14, 2020, before the government issued “stay-at-home” orders or closed businesses. Here in Chicago, the parade and the dyeing of the Chicago River green were both cancelled. Some bars still promoted celebrations, but many did not. Some people stayed home. Others drank green beer at pubs. By Monday, schools were closed, non-essential businesses were closed, gatherings were forbidden, those who could were working from home, and we were on virtual lockdown, urged to practice social-distancing.

Clara seems to express the same frustration and confusion that we had, especially in the early days of this and especially by 18-year-olds. And the country was just as confused about how to handle the pandemic in 1918 as we seem to be today. And different areas of the country moved at different paces.

Many people may have already read about the difference in how Philadelphia and St. Louis handled the outbreak in 1918. The stories from Philadelphia have a strange sense of déjà vu. Wilmer Krusen, Philadelphia’s public health director, assured the city that the flu was isolated to the military and that it would not spread to civilians. Despite reports of the disease’s spread, Krusen insisted on continuing with plans to host the Liberty Loan parade, which he predicted would raise millions of dollars in war bonds. The parade drew over 200,000 spectators.

Three days later, all of the hospitals in Philadelphia were at capacity. And within a week of the parade, 2,600 people had died. In the meantime, St. Louis was closing schools and other public gathering places. As a result, over the course of the pandemic, Philadelphia had more than twice as many deaths per 100,000 people than St. Louis.

St. Louis Red Cross – Library of Congress

But these weren’t the only two places imposing restrictions.

In October 1918, cities across the country were closing theaters and movie houses and forbidding all public gatherings. San Francisco began requiring masks for those in public. In fact, a Red Cross PSA stated, “the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker” and questioned the patriotism of those who refused to wear masks.

South Dakota also did its part. The South Dakota State Historical Society describes the actions the state took in 1918.

Throughout the state, churches, theatres, schools, pool halls, parlors and other public gathering places were closed indefinitely. The flu escalated to the point that the superintendent of the South Dakota Board of Health declared that, “In any community where the disease is prevalent, public gatherings of all kinds are forbidden.” Individuals who had any symptoms of the flu were asked to refrain from public gatherings of any kind. Public drinking cups and towels were prohibited. People were forbidden to congregate at train depots, requiring patrons to buy their train tickets one person at a time.

On October 16, 1918, the South Dakota State Board of Health closed the schools, including the University of South Dakota. All other public gatherings were also closed: theaters, sports, etc. Today, we hear isolated (and sometimes frightening) incidents of police fining, and even arresting, people for disobeying social distancing. But so far, they have remained isolated. This order in South Dakota in 1918, however, was enforced by the police and the Home Guard.

According to the South Dakota State Historical Society,

The Home Guard (the equivalent of today’s National Guard) roamed through the streets of Rapid City, fining and arresting people who were not abiding by the cities newly created “sanitation laws.” City residence were fined or arrested for “expectorating” (spitting) on the sidewalks of Rapid City. As the local paper noted, “The Guard will be out in full force today to see that there is no breaking of the quarantine regulations.” On October 27, 1918, one Rapid City man was charged with “flagrant violation of the anti-spitting ordinance.” Even a Rapid City police officer was arrested by the Home Guard for violating the anti-spitting ordinance and paid the customary fine of $6. 

So Clara is spending Halloween knitting a sweater. It reminds me of all the posts on social media of friends and family who are spending this time similarly: cooking, baking, sewing, painting, etc. In 1918, people were much more self-sufficient than we are today. It’s interesting to see people returning to those roots while we are locked-down during this Covid-19 pandemic.

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