One of the danger zones of genealogical research is not examining the historical context of our ancestors lives. We know that our ancestors lived through big events, but how those events occurred varied by community. Taking the time to read through the hometown newspaper is one way to learn how history played out for your ancestors.
The New Term “Flu”
The 1918 Flu Pandemic is center of our minds in 2020. Back then people used the term influenza to describe the symptoms of fever, cough, and weakness the disease caused. But this new influenza that spread rapidly was given the new term “flu” in the newspapers. Stories began first appearing in short paragraphs deep in the pages of newspapers of this new flu. It made its appearance in June 1918 in Boston, Massachusetts. Pennsylvania posted front page news of the flu in October 1918.
The First Wave
We know now that the flu virus first arrived in the port of Philadelphia September 19th with a Navy sailor. The first time The Reading Times reported on the 1918 flu on the front page of the paper, it was to note the state of Pennsylvania’s response to the virus. By October 14, 1918, PA set up of 65 emergency tent field hospitals across the state to care for the sick. The Governor shared that an estimated 275,000 had the flu and 5% of who fell ill, died. The Governor called on coal miners to keep working to support the war and country’s needs.
State health officials told people to stay home if they have symptoms, wash their hands, and quarantine if ill. Schools, churches, and businesses stayed open much of the fall and winter. The only things cancelled were large gatherings.
In Berks County, the Reading City health officer, Dr. Charles Roland, said on October 13, “that there is not likely to have been more than 200 cases [in the city of Reading] over the two days and with many of those who are ill last week and now recovered.” Reading had established emergency hospitals set up at the Rajah Theater (now the Santander Performing Arts Center) and the city’s armory, called Keystone Hall on Penn Street (no longer standing).
The doctor’s words were meant to be reassuring. We now know that most people struck with the flu died within a few days at home. Many people held funeral services in their homes with the deceased laid out in their living room. Many others held no services, and the recently deceased were collected on carts and taken right to the cemetery.
The Second Wave
As the 1918-1919 winter wound down, the flu continued through the population. It appears from the newspapers that people generally went on living their lives as best they could. The war raged in Europe, anarchist bombings occurred, all while households dealt with the pandemic. What is missing from newspaper coverage is what life was like for everyday people and what what they were feeling at the time.
In the March 10, 1919 Reading Times, Dr. William Brady published a column on what to do next in terms of the flu epidemic. “You can’t draw an arbitrary line between the very infectious respiratory infection and a less infectious respiratory infection. And the laboratory fails you if you attempt to seek aid there.” He recommended quarantining all the sick people as a caution. This advice reinforced existing practice.
Neither the state of PA or local county officials enacted any restrictions like our 2020 business shut-downs or lock-downs during 1918-1919 pandemic. The editors of the Reading Times state in September 2019 that everyone needs to get ready for influenza to return in the fall. But it never did, not in the way it hit in 1918. No reporting of massive illness or significant deaths occurred through the fall of 1919.
By December 30, 1919, Dr. Charles Bolduan of the U.S. Public Health Service announced that a reoccurrence of influenza has not developed. He expressed a fear that tuberculous could occur like occurred in other countries. His explanation? The U.S. had better nutrition than other countries.
We know now from death certificates that people still died from and with the flu in 1919. The virus had a big first wave of deaths, then smaller second and third waves of deaths. The fact that the second and third wave was unreported at the time is curious. Did our ancestors know the death rate was still high from flu? Were authorities in denial at the time?
Then and Now
What we are missing from the history of the 1918 Flu Pandemic is the story of how people lived through it day-to-day. Some survivors shared experiences with their children fortunately, but letters or diaries would be something valuable for family historians. The emotions people felt are often something missing from history.
The changes between 1918 and now are significant. We invented cars and the suburbs, giving us socially distant transportation and housing. The population and concentration of people in cities vs. farms was different a hundred years ago. Our ancestors passed news person-to-person, and now we have dashboards of numbers and data put out by state officials. Today’s medical treatments are managed by entire staffs of professionals now, compared to mostly home-based care then. Our differences between then and now are bound to lead to different outcomes for us compared to our ancestors.
Genealogy Research Advice
Read the hometown newspapers of your ancestors to see how they responded to the flu pandemic in 1918. Pull up the digitized newspapers and use the following search terms one at a time: Flu, Influenza, Epidemic, Pandemic. What stories are on the front page? Are they writing a little about it or a lot? Be sure to look at one newspaper at a time, and not every newspaper in the whole state.
Make a table of numbers so you have some more context for your ancestors. You can find population data in the U.S. Department of Commerce Census website downloadable for free. Here’s one I made as an example
|PA population||12.8 million||8.7 million|
|Berks County pop.||416 thousand||200 thousand|
|Reading City pop.||88 thousand||108 thousand|
|PA virus illness||142,666 tests*||1.2 million|
|PA virus deaths||7,903*||60 thousand|
Most importantly, be sure to write down what you’ve learned about your ancestors lives. Make note of what sources you used to find the information so you can go back to it. Now when you return to researching records, you’ll have a deeper appreciation of their lives and maybe your own.
Flu pandemic coverage, The Reading Times, 14 October 1918, https://www.newspapers.com/image/44813058, accessed 16 September 2020.
Dr. William Brady article, The Reading Times, page 5, https://www.newspapers.com/image/50769982, accessed 16 September 2020.
Dr. Charles Bolduan statement, The Reading Times, 30 December 1919, page 6, https://www.newspapers.com/image/48241290, accessed 16 September 2020.
“Penn and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” University of Pennsylvania website, https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-history/flu, accessed 16 September 2020.
“The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic”, PA Department of Health website, https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/prep/Pages/History.aspx, accessed 16 September 2020.
Oral history of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, “Pandemic Influenza Storybook,” Centers for Disease Control website archive, https://www.cdc.gov/publications/panflu/index.html, accessed 16 September 2020.
Copyright ©2020, Denys Allen and PA Ancestors. All Rights Reserved.
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