The 1918 Influenza in San Francisco: A Case Study for Today
In 1918 the world was at war, battling on both the battlefields in Europe and in medical facilities around the world. As World War I was coming to an end, a lethal combination of pneumonia and influenza was spreading, and quickly reaching pandemic levels. The influenza of 1918 spread quickly in military bases throughout the US, across battlefields in Europe, and eventually throughout the world. The first wave of the pandemic mainly affected the US military and navy, as well as the militaries of European powers, (Crosby, 2003, pg. 17-45). During the second and third waves, the virus spread throughout the US, (Crosby, 2003, pg. 45-202). It affected day-to-day life everywhere, from large cities to small towns. Hospitals across the US quickly overflowed with influenza patients. Some cities, like Philadelphia, adopted phone services to minimize the number of people in hospitals, (Crosby, 2003, pg. 79). Other cities, like San Francisco, focused more on mandating that gauze masks be worn to prevent the spread, (Crosby, 2003, pg. 101-116). By the end of the pandemic in 1920, more people had died from influenza than those who had died in World War I.
San Francisco during the influenza of 1918 is an interesting case study, because of all of the similarities to today. For example, San Francisco went through two waves of an epidemic, whereas other cities like Philadelphia only underwent one. The specific problems that the public dealt with during this pandemic were published in the city’s two major newspapers of the time, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Both of these newspapers offer an abundance of primary sources that can be used to answer a variety of different historical questions on the topic. The three main issues that span the one hundred and two years of time are the city-wide shutdown of businesses and services, the mask mandate, and the call for medical aid.
The effort to help prevent the spread of influenza led to a shutdown across the city, effectively taking away a lot of forms of entertainment. On October 17, 1918 the San Francisco Board of Health shut down a majority of the businesses and services within the city. This order shut down schools, church gatherings, any sort of public gathering, and many forms of entertainment, (“All Public Meetings,” 1918). There was one exception to this ban, and that was outdoor group sporting events. Just one day later, Dr. Hassler, a member of the San Francisco Board of Health, actually encouraged public gatherings to play outdoor athletic games, despite banning all public gatherings the day before, because of the belief that fresh air could prevent the spread of influenza, (“No Ban on Athletics,” 1918). By shutting down a lot of businesses and services, daily life in San Francisco became a lot different; there were less options for how people could safely spend their days.
The city-wide mask ordinance had a massive impact on both society and culture in San Francisco, but it also holds similarities to today in its effect on the public. On October 24, 1918 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring masks be worn in public. Anyone caught not following this ordinance faced either a maximum jail sentence of ten days in county jail, or a fine ranging anywhere from three dollars to ten dollars. A lot of the specifications as to when a mask had to be worn, and when it did not, resemble a lot of the restrictions in place today. For example, anyone in a public place, at gatherings of two or more people, or anyone selling food or clothing had to wear a mask. The exceptions were if one was around the family that they live with, or eating they were not required to have a mask on. It is interesting also that they included specifications for the masks that were worn. Masks had to firmly cover the mouth and nose, be made of mesh gauze or any four-ply material, and be at least five inches by seven inches, (“Here is Text of,” 1918). This mandate affected daily life for people living within the city. It even became a controversial issue, a symbol of being forced to do something by the government. There were articles published describing how a hundred and ten people were arrested for not following the mandate, (“110 Arrested,” 1918). The disputes became so serious that people were even shot and killed over this topic, (“Three Shot in Struggle,” 1918). One symbol of defiance is a man who was arrested and sent to jail for spitting on the sidewalk, (“Man Sent to Jail,” 1918). The term “mask slacker” was even added to the vernacular, as a way to refer to people who did not wear masks when they were supposed to; it was even used in the titles of many articles that were published at the time, (“‘Mask Slackers’ Given Jail Sentences,” 1918). Despite the controversy, masks ended up becoming a part of the culture by way of fashion, they essentially became accessories, (“Everyone is Compelled,” 1918). The effects of this mask mandate impacted the city’s society and culture in a way that seems familiar to today.
Another aspect of the 1918 influenza that has connections to today is the urgent need for medical help. During the epidemic, medical staff quickly became overwhelmed with cases. At only three months into the influenza outbreak in San Francisco, the ill significantly outnumbered medical professionals. Advertisements were published in newspapers requesting help from any trained medical professionals. It eventually got so bad that they started asking for help from untrained individuals as well, (“Nurses Wanted,” 1918). Women specifically were advertised to, they were “urged to war on influenza” while men were at war overseas, (“Each Person Urged,” 1918). There were even advertisements, approved by the Board of Health, that were meant to persuade people to wear masks to prevent the spread of influenza, (“Wear a Mask,” 1918). Preventative measures like this were put in place so that the public could do their part in helping the fight against the influenza. This sense of an overwhelmed medical world is very relevant to today. Even the push to help relieve the pressure on hospitals by putting preventative measures in place is relevant.
There are a lot of connections between the influenza of 1918 and the current COVID-19 pandemic. When the first wave of the COVID-19 virus in America started to spread rapidly across the country, the medical world was overwhelmed with cases. There was a call for masks and face shields to be sent to hospitals due to the low supply and high demand of those items. Ventilators were in high demand across the country as hospitals tried to prevent having to make the same choices that nurses in Italy were forced to make due to their lack of enough ventilators to go around. Medical staff across the country became overworked as they spent long days and nights putting themselves in danger to fight the virus. Preventative measures were taken to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. A mask mandate was even put in place in many states, forcing citizens to wear face coverings in public. This caused many conflicts and protests across the country as it became a highly controversial political symbol. Quarantine began and many states asked the public to stay home and stay safe in order to do their part to prevent the spread. Many states shut down non-essential businesses during quarantine, causing people to come up with new and creative ways to both entertain themselves and see family members safely. All of this, as previously proven with examples from various newspaper articles, echoes what people went through in 1918.
History classes should explore current events through the lens of history. Throughout history, there have been many large-scale viruses that impacted human life. The bubonic plague that killed a third of Europe’s population, the virus that struck the people and major players of Athens as they were behind the wall in the Peloponnesian War, and the yellow fever that struck Philadelphia hard in 1793 are just a few examples of large-scale viruses that impacted civilizations throughout history. The influenza of 1918 is not as commonly represented in history lessons as past viruses like the bubonic plague; it is commonly left out of history classrooms across the country. There are many ways that a teacher could use this specific pandemic in a history classroom. To name a few examples, one could look at how disease impacted societies throughout history by providing students with a few different situations. Another example is to use the article about the man who was arrested for spitting on the sidewalk as an example of an act of defiance, (“Man Sent to Jail,” 1918). This can then be taken further by asking if this particular act of defiance was justified. One could even relate this to a conversation about first amendment rights, and why this became such a disputed topic. Even asking where your rights end and another’s begin can add to this conversation. This topic of the 1918 influenza pandemic can be very versatile, the key though is to bring the conversation into current times. These are difficult times, and history class is a place where students have the opportunity to unpack everything that is going on in the world. It is important to look at current events through the lens of history in order to help students better digest the world around them.
In all, San Francisco during the 1918 influenza pandemic is a perfect case study for today. The city-wide shutdown of businesses and services, the mask mandate, and the call for medical aid all echo the problems facing the American public during the COVID-19 pandemic today. This is not where the comparisons end, however, these are just a few of the most prominent examples. Another example would be that 1918 was a congressional election year, and people actually showed up to vote in-person. It only takes a little digging to realize just how relevant the 1918 influenza is today. I encourage you to do a little digging of your own, because this is a versatile topic that should be covered in history class.
All public meetings are banned under city order. (1918, October 18). San Francisco Examiner, 5. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/7110flu.0009.117/1/–all-public-meetings-are-banned-under-city-order?page=root;rgn=full+text;size=100;view=pdf;q1=San+Francisco+Examiner
Crosby, A. W. (2003). America’s forgotten pandemic: The influenza of 1918 (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Each person urged to war on influenza. (1918, October 16). San Francisco Examiner, 4. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/3110flu.0009.113/1/–each-person-urged-to-war-on-influenza?page=root;rgn=full+text;size=100;view=pdf;q1=San+Francisco+Examiner
Everyone is compelled to wear masks by city resolution; Great variety in styles of face adornment in evidence. (1918, October 25). San Francisco Chronicle, 1.
Here is text of city mask ordinance; Violation incurs fine or imprisonment. (1918, October 25).San Francisco Chronicle, 1.
Man sent to jail for spitting on sidewalk. (1918, October 27). San Francisco Examiner, 6. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/9610flu.0009.169/1/–man-sent-to-jail-for-spitting-on-sidewalk?rgn=full+text;view=image;q1=San+Francisco+Examiner;op2=or;q2=San+Francisco+Chronicle
Mask slackers’ given jail sentences, fines. (1918, October 29). San Francisco Examiner, 13. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/5710flu.0009.175/1/–mask-slackers-given-jail-sentences-fines?rgn=full+text;view=image;q1=San+Francisco+Examiner;op2=or;q2=San+Francisco+Chronicle;op3=and;q3=mask+slackers
No ban on athletics, is dictum on health. (1918, October 19). San Francisco Examiner, 9. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/1210flu.0009.121/1/–no-ban-on-athletics-is-dictum-on-health?page=root;rgn=full+text;size=100;view=pdf;q1=San+Francisco+Chronicle;op2=or;q2=San+Francisco+Examiner
Nurses wanted on influenza. (1918, December 22). San Francisco Chronicle, 10. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/0120flu.0016.210/1/–nurses-wanted-on-influenza?page=root;rgn=full+text;size=100;view=image;q1=San+Francisco+Chronicle
110 arrested for disobeying masking edict. (1918, October 28). San Francisco Chronicle, 1. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/7920flu.0009.297/1/–110-arrested-for-disobeying-masking-edict?rgn=full+text;view=image;q1=San+Francisco+Examiner;op2=or;q2=San+Francisco+Chronicle
Three shot in struggle with mask slacker. (1918, October 29). San Francisco Chronicle, 1. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/0030flu.0009.300/1/–three-shot-in-struggle-with-mask-slacker?rgn=full+text;view=image;q1=San+Francisco+Chronicle
Wear a mask and save your life! (1918, October 22). San Francisco Chronicle. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/0620flu.0009.260/1/–wear-a-mask-and-save-your-life?rgn=full+text;view=image;q1=San+Francisco+Chronicle