The Virus This Time

The Spanish Flu of 1918 puts our current coronavirus pandemic in perspective.

A “Spanish Flu” sign posted at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia (Oct. 19, 1918). Credit: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via the Associated Press.

The arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic has us looking back to previous epidemics, and our responses to them, both as individuals and as members of a community.

A striking example was the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, which wreaked havoc on Northwest Philadelphia in two waves, one beginning in winter and lasting through spring 1918, followed by second, more brutal wave starting in August and lasting into early November. (The theory is that the virus mutated in the late summer, turning it into a far more effective killer. Didn’t help that a massive number of soldiers were returning home at the end of World War I – and a huge parade that drew 200,000 in Philly during this time – provided plenty of opportunities for infection.)

The Liberty Loan Drive parade stepped off on September 28, 1918, with about 200,000 people jammed along Broad Street, cheering wildly as the line of marchers stretched for two miles. In this pic, an aircraft hull travels the parade route. Credit: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The loss of life in Germantown due to the epidemic was particularly marked in October of that year. Of 108 deaths in Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill during the week of October 10, 83 were attributed to the Spanish flu, with 16 deaths recorded on Sunday, October 16 alone.

This overwhelmed local resources; for example, a shortage of caskets quickly occurred, and cemetery workers could not keep up with the demand for quick burials. Cemeteries at Ivy Hill, Holy Sepulchre and Northwood could barely keep up with the arrival of casualties caused by the epidemic.

Northwood Cemetery, for example, had an average of 25 burials during the epidemic. In the case of Holy Sepulchre, 25 students from St. Charles Borromeo Theological Seminary came to help bury the dead. Ivy Hill Cemetery received help as well, from students of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy.

An advertisement placed in the Thursday, October 17, 1918 edition of the Germantown Independent-Gazette, announced the closure of Nixon’s Colonial Theatre in Germantown, as directed by the Philadelphia Bureau of Health. Photo courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.

The response to the epidemic included the closing of several Germantown movie theatres, including the Germantown, Rialto, and Colonial. The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf – now the home of the New Covenant Church in Mount Airy – was placed on lockdown; no students were allowed to leave the school grounds, and their parents were forbidden from visiting until the epidemic was over.

The Germantown High School closed and a Liberty Loan Parade used to raise funds to support the United States’ war effort was canceled. Members of the Service House of the Germantown Branch of the National League for Women’s Service cooked food for those infected with the flu. This included jellies, soups, and fruit juices.

Motorists drove nurses to and from the homes of the sick. Local funeral homes received help from two manual training department teachers at the Germantown High School, who made coffins for the dead.

In its Thursday, October 24, 1918 edition, the Germantown Independent-Gazette proclaimed “Epidemic is Now Rapidly Subsiding”, and noted that the number of deaths caused by the Spanish flu epidemic had dropped off dramatically since the preceding week. By November, the epidemic had all but completely subsided.

About Alex Bartlett 33 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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