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  • Karen Washburn

The 1918 Pandemic Strikes Northern Virginia!

Updated: Apr 16

It's Happened Before! Part II

(See Part I on this site)


In spite of all the optimistic statements offered by government officials that the Spanish Influenza should not be too much of a problem locally, the flu proved them wrong. It struck hard in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Totally unprepared, and inexperienced with airborne contagions, the government had to quickly go into overdrive. In hopes of keeping it from spreading, the Surgeon General freely dispensed new regulations and advice. But it was too little and too late. The number of flu cases in the area accelerated with lightning speed to an epidemic level.


Red Cross Nurses Library of Congress

Newspapers published warnings, the government’s instructions, and new regulations. These required anyone out in public to cover their mouth and nose with a gauze mask. Coughing and sneezing without using a handkerchief, or spitting in public were finable offenses. Public meeting places, schools, and churches were closed. So were all theaters and pool halls. Stores and businesses were allowed to stay open, as were barber shops. However, barbers had to wear face masks.


Trains and trolleys were ordered to travel at all times with the windows open. Closing a window was against the law. People were advised that when riding on public transportation to keep their faces averted from their neighboring passengers.

rains and trolleys were ordered to travel at all times with the windows open. Closing a window was against the law. People were advised that when riding on public transportation to keep their faces averted from their neighboring passengers. This was a difficult maneuver given the extremely crowded conditions. Temporary war workers had dramatically increased the populations of Washington, D.C. and Alexandria and most people commuted by trolleys. Therefore, social distancing was only accomplished by turning ones face away from ones neighbor.


In spite of precautions the death toll mounted. That coupled with a severe shortage of doctors, nurses, coffins, and grave diggers made for a hellish situation in many cities. Temporary hospitals were set up in churches and meeting halls. In Washington, D.C. overwhelmed undertakers had coffins with bodies in them piling up in the street in front of their establishments.

1918 Trolley In Washington, D.C. Library of Congress

About the same time that the flu struck in the District of Columbia it also began to migrate to Northern Virginia. It quickly reached an epidemic proportion in the city of Alexandria. It’s progress through the farm country was much slower no doubt because people were much more spread out. Farmers worked twelve-hour days and frequently had little contact with anyone other than household members during the week. On Saturdays they went to town to buy supplies and on Sundays many attended church.


In its October 1 edition, the Fairfax Herald published the optimistic headline: “The Influenza. Number of cases of the Disease But No Epidemic In County.” The report went on to say that while there were many cases of influenza in the county that the disease had not “the hold” on Fairfax that it did in Alexandria and Washington where victims numbered in the thousands. Obviously the writer was not taking into account the vast difference in population in the two areas under comparison. The article ended with a bright note: “If people are careful to avoid the risk of the disease it can be kept from spreading in the country districts to any great extent.” Unfortunately that’s not what happened.


There were already many flu cases throughout Loudoun County. The October 1 issue of the Loudoun Mirror had a detailed front page report from the Surgeon General. Both the Mirror and the Herald published his advice on how to avoid getting the disease and what the treatments should be for those that became ill.


1918 Red Cross Nurses Library of Congress

It was stressed that everyone should avoid crowded places. One should keep oneself clean and in clean clothing. The Mirror reported that the American Red Cross was advocating the use of a mask made of four layers of clean gauze that would cover the mouth and nose. Other measures suggested to avoid the illness were to get plenty of fresh air, not sleep in crowded quarters, avoid excessive fatigue, wash hands before eating, not put fingers in your mouth, and not share drinking cups or towels. Handkerchiefs should be used to cover all coughs and sneezes.


Today these measures seem to be just normal common sense. Generations of Americans have been brought up by mothers preaching these practices. While sound ideas, some of this advice was not particularly practical when applied to the people and home life in the Virginia farm country of 1918.


Households were often made up of large extended families that included children, parents, grandparents, and at times, a great grandparent or two. Average houses were not large. It was very common for a family of eight to live in a four or five room house. Most did not have running water, indoor toilets, or bathrooms. A few had water piped into the kitchen. They did not have water heaters, so the water at the kitchen sink was cold. So was that straight from the well bucket. No wonder hand washing was an exercise that was often skipped. And their only hand wipes were their pant legs or skirts.


Keeping clean was also a challenge. Bathing was usually done only once a week. Water was heated on the kitchen stove and poured into a tin bathtub. Because it was so much work to fill and empty the tub, the water was often used by more than one person.


Farmers and their families did not have extensive wardrobes. They normally had an outfit for Sunday best, and two of daily wear - one to wear while the other was in the wash. Clean clothes were put on once a week. Many carried fabric handkerchiefs. Any germs trapped in those stayed with the owner until they went into the laundry. But washing clothes was labor intensive and only done once a week.


Shared drinking vessels were by far the largest health hazard of the time. Spring houses and wells were equipped with a dipper to drink from used by everyone. School children were supplied with water from a bucket and drank from a common dipper. There were no disposable cups on hand.


Given the amount of work done on a daily basis, it was not hard for farm families to heed the advice to get plenty of fresh air. On the other hand, it was probably very difficult to comply with avoiding excessive fatigue. Farmers worked hard. Daily chores had to be done no matter what happened. When family members or helpers became ill, the same amount of work still had to be done but by fewer hands.


The newspapers also published the Surgeon General’s advice on what to do when someone became ill with the flu. Again, while sound in theory, some of it was not any more practical than that for prevention. The minute that one became ill they were advised to go home at once and go straight to bed. No one else should be allowed to sleep in the same room and only the nurse should be permitted in the room with the patient. The nurse, of course, should wear a mask.

All discharges from the nose, eyes, and lungs should be collected on rags or paper napkins, and those should be burned. The patient should be kept warm. If they had a fever they should be given water to drink and a cold compress should be applied to the forehead. Aspirin could be taken to relieve aches and pains. A saline or chamomile laxative was also advised. The patient should definitely stay indoors, but the windows of the sick room should be opened wide several times a day to air it out.

People were advised to stay calm and not to be afraid. It was believed that fear could promote deterioration in the patient’s condition and even bring on death. The final and most emphasized advice was SEND FOR A DOCTOR.


Coming Soon: Part III. The Doctors and The Pandemic Takes a Terrible Toll.

Copyright Karen Washburn 2006

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