Things You May Not Know About The Spanish Flu

by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Images courtesy of:
Bridgeman Images; Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images; Free Library of Philadelphia/Bridgeman Images.
  • The Spanish flu did not originate in Spain, though news coverage of it did. It most likely started in Kansas in March 1918, when U.S. soldiers and civilians around Fort Riley rapidly became ill. The Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus came from France and called it the “French Flu.”
  • The Spanish flu pandemic that swept the world in 1981-1919 infected one-third of the planet’s population and killed an estimated 50 million people over the course of two years. Some believe it killed twice that many.
  • Approximately 675,000 citizens of the United States died and 28% of the population was infected. That’s more than all the deaths of American soldiers in the 20th century combined. More U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during WWI.
  • The first wave of the 1918 pandemic occurred in the spring and was generally mild. The sick experienced typical flu symptoms usually recovered after several days, and the number of reported deaths was low. But a second, highly contagious wave appeared in the fall of that same year, killing victims within hours or days. 
  • No other pandemic has claimed as many lives, not even the Black Death in the fourteenth century or AIDS in the twentieth century, yet the Spanish flu is seldom mentioned. 1918 is often called the year of forgotten death.
  • Untold numbers of children were orphaned during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
  • During the flu pandemic of 1918, the New York City health commissioner tried to slow the transmission of the flu by ordering businesses to open and close on staggered shifts to avoid overcrowding on the subways.
  • Despite warnings from the city’s health officials to avoid crowds because of the Spanish flu, the Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, brought 200,000 people together on the city’s streets on September 28, 1918. Over the next six months, more than half a million people contracted the virus and more than 16,000 perished.
Images courtesy of:
Bridgeman Images; Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images; Free Library of Philadelphia/Bridgeman Images.

The Outbreak

  • During the 1918 Spanish flu, hospitals and morgues quickly became overcrowded in some cities, with bodies piling up by the dozens, and many left for days on sidewalks and front lawns. Carts traveled the streets, their drivers calling for people to bring out their dead.
  • During the 1918 Spanish flu, people used folk remedies to protect themselves. They tied garlic around their necks, ate extra onions, and sucked on sugar cubes soaked in kerosene. They took formaldehyde tablets, morphine, laudanum, and chloride of lime, and gave whiskey and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to babies and children, despite the fact that it contained morphine, alcohol, and ammonia. The American Medical Association called the syrup a “baby killer” in 1911, but it wasn’t removed from the market until 1930.
  • To maintain morale and hide the additional loss of life from their enemies, wartime censors curtailed early reports of the Spanish flu and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. But newspapers in Spain were free to report the epidemic’s effects, creating the false impression that Spain was especially hard hit, leading to the nickname Spanish flu.
  • Philadelphia was the American city with the highest, most rapidly accumulating death toll. The death toll in St. Louis, Missouri, which immediately closed schools, movie theaters, and banned public gatherings, was one-eighth of Philadelphia’s.
  • The Spanish flu infected Walt Disney and Woodrow Wilson. It also killed Donald Trump’s grandfather.
  • At first, people blamed the Germans for the Spanish flu, claiming they were spreading poison clouds, or that Bayer, a German-owned company, had infected their aspirin.
  • To fight the Spanish flu, medical professionals advised patients to take up to 30 grams of aspirin per day, a dose now known to be toxic.
  • It’s now believed that many of the October deaths were actually caused or hastened by aspirin poisoning.
  • When the Spanish flu hit in 1918, some newspapers reported that influenza posed no danger because it was as old as history and usually accompanied by foul air, fog, and plagues of insects.
Images courtesy of:
Bridgeman Images; Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images; Free Library of Philadelphia/Bridgeman Images

Public Perception & Safety Measures

  • The Board of Health advised people to ward off the Spanish flu by keeping their feet dry, staying warm, eating more onions, and keeping their bowels and windows open. Phonographs were advertised as machines guaranteed to drive away influenza because listening to records you’d never know you had to stay in nights.
  • During the 1918 Spanish flu, posters went up that read: “When obliged to cough or sneeze, always place a handkerchief, paper napkin, or fabric of some kind before the face,” or “Cover your mouth! Influenza Is Spread by Droplets Sprayed from Nose and Mouth” and “Spitting Equals Death”.
  • Some cities ordered all citizens to wear gauze masks in public. Signs read: “Obey the laws and wear the gauze, protect your jaws from septic paws.”
  • In San Francisco, people without masks were fined $5.00 and were called “mask slackers.”
  • In some cities during the Spanish flu, schools, churches, meetinghouses, movie theaters, saloons, and all places of gathering, even factories were ordered closed. Trollies forbid anyone not wearing a mask to board, funerals were not allowed, and libraries put a halt on lending books. People were also advised to avoid shaking hands and to stay indoors.

From the internationally bestselling author of What She Left Behind comes a gripping and powerful tale of upheaval—a heartbreaking saga of resilience and hope perfect for fans of Beatriz Williams and Kristin Hannah—set in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak—the deadly pandemic that went on to infect one-third of the world’s population…
In the fall of 1918, thirteen-year-old German immigrant Pia Lange longs to be far from Philadelphia’s overcrowded slums and the anti-immigrant sentiment that compelled her father to enlist in the U.S. Army. But as her city celebrates the end of war, an even more urgent threat arrives: the Spanish flu. Funeral crepe and quarantine signs appear on doors as victims drop dead in the streets and desperate survivors wear white masks to ward off illness. When food runs out in the cramped tenement she calls home, Pia must venture alone into the quarantined city in search of supplies, leaving her baby brothers behind.
Bernice Groves has become lost in grief and bitterness since her baby died from the Spanish flu. Watching Pia leave her brothers alone, Bernice makes a shocking, life-altering decision. It becomes her sinister mission to tear families apart when they’re at their most vulnerable, planning to transform the city’s orphans and immigrant children into what she feels are “true Americans.”
Waking in a makeshift hospital days after collapsing in the street, Pia is frantic to return home. Instead, she is taken to St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum – the first step in a long and arduous journey. As Bernice plots to keep the truth hidden at any cost in the months and years that follow, Pia must confront her own shame and fear, risking everything to see justice – and love – triumph at last. Powerful, harrowing, and ultimately exultant, The Orphan Collector is a story of love, resilience, and the lengths we will go to protect those who need us most.