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Responses to the 1918 Epidemic—Some Things Don’t Change

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

When the Spanish Flu swept the nation in 1918, people responded much as they are responding to today’s pandemic. Here is a fun look at some of the things that appeared in Colorado newspapers of the time.

The federal government issued a health bulletin to be printed in most newspapers. It included this picture. Doesn’t this just look like something the government would publish?

For a time, public meetings were banned, and businesses and schools were closed, usually on a local level. But technology came to the rescue.

When church services couldn’t be held, the pastor furnished a sermonette in the newspaper. How different is that from the virtual church services many of us are having today?

Telephone ordering and delivery! And we thought Instacart was unique.

In 1918, there were some unique quarantine issues that we don’t face today.

The Colorado Western Power Company wasn’t allowed to send meter readers to homes. Instead, the meter man was to leave a stamped and addressed postcard in the mailbox or under the front door. Then the homeowner wrote the meter reading on the back of the card and put it in the mail.

The power company was also no longer allowed to rent vacuum cleaners. “At such times as these hygiene places the PUBLIC VACUUM CLEANER in the same class as the PUBLIC TOOTHBRUSH.”

Oh, my word. Imagine all the flu germs blowing out with the vacuum exhaust. Or, better yet, imagine a public toothbrush, although I’m sure those didn’t exist. Did they?

The old newspapers don’t talk much about shortages from the epidemic, probably because World War I had already caused rationing. They made an exception to the rationing of sugar for Spanish Flu victims based on a doctor’s recommendation.

The following ad suggests there may have been shortages of over-the-counter medications.

The small print reads, “The sudden demand from every part of the United States for domestic remedies used in the prevention of influenza has practically exhausted the market. Such articles as Castor Oil, Quinine, Camphor, Asafoetida are to be had in very small quantities only. Antiphligistine, Lysol, Musterole, and other items are scarce. On most of these articles, we are very well supplied and can furnish until our stock is exhausted. . .”

Lysol. Even then, people bought up all the Lysol. No mention of toilet paper though.

The others are medications used to treat a cold or flu. Quinine was used to treat malaria. Asafoetida is used for breathing problems. Antiphligistine is for muscle pain. Musterole is a mustard ointment to put on the chest, think Vicks. Castor oil is a laxative. And camphor can be used to relieve a cough. Good thing the Cotton & Grauel drug store was well supplied.

Everyone tried to make a buck off the epidemic. The following ad is for underwear. Who would guess from the headline?

Apparently, warm long johns keep you healthy.

The next ad says, “Diseases get an easy mark in a woman who is run down physically by excessive housework.” They seem to be telling women to rest up to avoid the Flu. They recommend the purchase of an electric washing machine.

The Western Colorado Power Company must have been trying to make up for lost income from vacuum cleaner rental. Not only were they pushing washing machines as a preventative measure, but they were also offering heating pads as a remedy.

Drug stores touted all kinds of remedies for the Spanish Flu. The following ad is for a “special tonic” for use after having the flu to rebuild strength. If there’s a nurse in the ad, it must be good.

No telling what the special tonic contained.

Last but not least, if you were bored at home with all of the closures, modern entertainment was available. Take this Victrola (record player) advertisement, for example.

The small text reads, “Kept home by bad weather? Nothing special to do? Time never hangs heavy on your hands if you have a Victrola. It thrills you with the best music by the world’s greatest artists; it delights you with the mirth of the most noted entertainers. The Victrola is congenial company any time. It changes its mood to suit your every whim.”

This sounds exactly like the internet!!! Where can I get one?

After one hundred years, much remains the same.

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