1918 flu epidemic

Alice Jeffers thumbs carefully through fragile pages of a 1918 edition of The Times. Jeffers is a caretaker for the historical legacy of Dean and Janie Broome, including bound volumes of The Blackshear Times dating from around 1900 to 1970. Dean Broome and his father and brother published The Times from the 1940s to 1970. Dean used those files to publish the History of Pierce County, Volume I. After his death, Janie Broome, an educator and historian, published the History of Pierce County, Volumes II and III. Alice is the youngest daughter of Dean and Janie Broome.

The Blackshear Times has endeavored over the last two months to provide our readers with the most up to date, localized look at COVID-19 (coronavirus) and its impacts on Pierce County citizens. Not much has changed in the last 100 years – a century ago The Times did the very same thing.

A recent perusal of The Times editions from Fall 1918 and early 1919 reveals hardly a weekly edition went by without some mention of the raging Spanish Flu, an epidemic of global scale much like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the 1918 influenza pandemic infected one-third of the world’s population (500 million people) and 50 million people died worldwide, 675,000 of those in the United States.

Most items published in those archived editions of The Times are advertisements for tonics, remedies and medicinal syrups sure to stave off flu, or for Vicks vapor rub, a product promised to help patients recover from the flu quickly. Vicks became a nationally recognized brand due largely in part to the 1918 pandemic.

Other news items include health bulletins from the U.S. Public Health Service with tips for controlling the disease’s spread usually under the headline: “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu.”

Aside from health bulletins and advertisements, one article in the October 31, 1918, edition written by Dr. W.P. Williams, Pierce County’s health officer, provided the most localized look at the epidemic here at home.

Williams told Times’ readers the influenza (commonly called the grip) was gathering headway in the county.

“Blackshear is practically surrounded by families stricken down with the disease. Relatively few in the town, as yet, have it. Outside it has already gathered its toll of dead,” Williams writes.

The Times, and other longstanding newspapers across the state, report much of the same precautions in place now were instituted in 1918 as well, including the closure of churches, large gatherings and some businesses.

“No citizen of the town has died of the disease. This has been brought about by closing the churches and other places of assembly,” Williams continues.

He contributed the flu’s spread to gatherings of people in stores, on the streets and in other public places, and attempted contact tracing of the flu in Pierce County.

“The cases developed in town have been either brought in from the outside or contracted from a place of business. The probability is that many of the cases in the country have been contracted in the stores or upon the streets of the town,” Williams reported.

And, Williams recommended two ways of combating the influenza pandemic  — close every store and public place in town or require residents to wear face masks on the streets and in all public places.

The wearing of face masks was soon mandated in Pierce County.

“After Friday, November 1st, everyone will be required to wear a gauze mask over the nose and mouth while on the streets, in the stores, barber shops, post office, depot and other public places of the town,” Williams wrote. “The vendors of soda water and other drinks are required to disinfect every glass before serving it. The citizens of the town and county are asked to cooperate in enforcing these regulations and help to stop the epidemic. Be sure and wear the mask whenever you come into crowds or go upon the trains.”

The Red Cross supplied masks for five cents each and they could be purchased at any drug store or other business wishing to provide them.  Directions for sewing face masks then followed in Williams’ report.

Williams also suggested Pierce Countians regularly gargle and use nasal disinfectant sprays.

National and statewide health bulletins mirrored Williams’ advice to locals. Those bulletins appeared nearly every week in The Times editions for October - December 1918.

One bulletin reads: “If the people of this country do not take care the epidemic will become so widespread throughout the United States that soon we shall hear the disease called “American” influenza.”

At the time, influenza was said to have originated in Spain and was first reported among military personnel in the U.S. during the spring of 1918 as World War I continued to rage.

Residents who contracted the flu were advised to go to bed immediately and self-isolate at home while their caregivers were told to wear face masks.

“Anyone who contracts flu should go home and go to bed at once, to help keep away dangerous complications and at the same time keep the patient from scattering the disease far and wide. No one should be allowed to sleep in the same room with the patient,” another health bulletin reads.

Community-wide prevention methods taken to combat the epidemic included limited gatherings. Overcrowding on street cars in large cities was forbidden and riders were advised to turn their faces so as not to breathe in air breathed by the person sitting across from them.

Personal prevention methods recommended included a nutritious diet, especially milk; keeping well clothed and proper portion of work, rest and play.

Just as news agencies are working hard during the COVID-19 pandemic to balance reporting of proper caution without causing panic, articles appearing in The Times a century ago advised families not to call for a doctor unless the patient was feverish or began coughing up blood.

“Influenza has a very low percentage of fatalities  — not over one death out of every 400 cases, according to the N.C. board of health. The chief danger lies in complications arising, attacking principally patients in a run-down condition  — those who don’t go to bed soon enough or those who get up too early,” one article reads.

Creative marketing strategies for flu remedies abounded during 1918-1919, including a few that prompt a chuckle.

“Do not fear when fighting a German or a Germ!” one advertisement reads. “The cool fighter always wins and so there is no need to become panic stricken. Avoid fear and crowds. Exercise in the fresh air and practice the three C’s: a clean mouth, clean skin, and clean bowels.”

In the December 5, 1918 edition of The Times a national health bulletin warned Americans to expect another influenza epidemic.

Those public health officials were right  — the flu resurged across the state and nation from December 1918 - February 1919.

The Times was unsuccessful in attempts to contact a Department of Public Health (DPH) epidemiologist to weigh in on similarities and differences between the 1918 flu and the current COVID-19 pandemic.