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A city worker in New York City in 1918 cleaning the street wearing protective gear to fight the spread of influenza.
A New York street cleaner wears a mask to check the spread of the influenza epidemic in 1918.
Bettmann Archive

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What the 1918 pandemic can teach cities about public spaces today

Lessons on restricting public spaces and social interaction in the age of coronavirus

Life in America’s cities has transformed—quickly, radically, and dramatically—in the last week in ways we’re still comprehending. Politico called it “the Great American shutdown,” and with increasingly strict orders being enacted to protect the country from the further spread of the novel coronavirus, including the Bay Area’s recent shelter-in-place declaration, it seems obvious that the nation is entering uncharted territory.

In many ways that’s true. But the great slowdown of American life recalls the quarantines, public-meeting bans, and shutdowns that came about during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. A physician of the era, George Price, famously called influenza a “destroyer and teacher,” and according to an article by Dr. Nancy Tomes, the most important of its lessons was “the difficulties inherent in controlling a deadly, fast-moving epidemic in communities knit closely together by mass transportation, mass media, mass consumption, and mass warfare.”

Between 1890 and 1918, the Industrial Revolution, technological evolution, and the swift expansion of cities in the U.S. created the template for modern life, and the basics of urban living—including public schools, public transportation, and public entertainment—that we now take for granted. And when the 1918-1919 pandemic hit, officials pursued a similar slowdown of American life, and an emptying out of public spaces.

Looking back at this era of closures, isolation, and public health campaigns offers some relevant lessons, and some reassurances, about the course the nation is on right now. Cities that acted quickly and proactively limited public life slowed the spread of the disease and saved lives.

St. Louis, led by Dr. Max C. Starkloff, its health commissioner, has been heralded as an example of swift action to, in our present-day terminology, flatten the curve. Starkloff closed public gatherings, took unpopular steps like canceling football games, had policeman in department stores force people to move through the space quickly, and created a Department of Information to keep citizens up to date. He also put a stop to the Liberty Loan Parade, a fundraising drive for the war effort held in late September 1918 (the first World War was in its final months). In contrast, in Philadelphia, where the parade took place and attracted a crowd of more than 200,000, influenza cases and deaths spiked.

How public spaces and public life slowed down

Between the start of the pandemic in the United States, in the fall of 1918, and 1919, when there were additional waves of infection in many places, numerous cities across the country instituted varying degrees of bans, prohibitions, and rules against public gathering. Bars, theaters, churches, and schools were closed to varying degrees, door-to-door sales were banned, and spitting in public would get one fined. At the peak of the pandemic, some cities restricted police and fire services. New York City even staggered the openings and closings of certain businesses to reduce crowding on streets and on public transit.

As Tomes noted, this all played out in an incredibly public way, as mass media had come of age (by World War I, newspaper reading in the United States had reached an all-time high). The extensive archives of the University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia, featuring hundreds of newspaper articles, offer a window into the experience of Americans during this tumultuous time.

Baseball players, one batting and one catching, with umpire standing behind plate, wearing masks which they thought would keep them from getting flu during influenza epidemic of 1918.
The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

In Chicago, Dr. John Dill Robertson, commissioner of health, ordered every victim of the disease to go home and stay there. They were told to stay away from crowds, seek good air, and shun bad air. The streetcars of the city’s L elevated rail line, which Dr. Robertson called “moving houses,” were purified and cleaned, and smoking onboard was prohibited. His push for closures of businesses, bars, and entertainment venues gave him a reputation for paternalism. As a result of his actions, the Loop district, a center of entertainment, sat empty at night, sidewalks were suddenly clear, restaurants were half deserted, and taxicabs were idle.

Businesses suffered anxiety over the immediate loss of customers and the uncertainty around future customers. In Oakland, California, barbers complained that, because so many potential patrons were wearing face masks for protection, they didn’t need to shave, “saving them two bits” and providing them non-skid padding for their facial gear. A 2007 Federal Reserve Bank Study examining records in Little Rock, Arkansas, found that businesses in the city lost 40 to 70 percent of their income during the pandemic. In Seattle, Mayor Ole Hanson, who ordered every indoor place of public amusement closed, responded to his critics by saying, “some will kick, but we would rather listen to a live kicker than bury him.” After the ban went into effect, a Seattle Times headline read, “No place to go, so Seattleites walk streets.”

As school buildings sat empty, parents had to find other places for children to spend their days. Most school systems closed kindergarten through high school instruction, in some cases for as long as 15 weeks (recent research found this move cut infection rates by 15 percent, according to Smithsonian). Even in the systems that were open, attendance dwindled: by the end of October, Chicago schools were half full.

Sports stadiums and entertainment venues also sat empty. An October heavyweight boxing match between Jack Dempsey and “Battling” Levinsky was postponed until November. Philadelphia banned high school and college football games and amateur soccer matches. Major league baseball just escaped cancellation from the pandemic, since its season ended unusually early that September when the Boston Red Sox beat the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Local health officials warned of the impact of crowds on the spreading disease, and famed player Babe Ruth was said to have caught the flu twice, only to get better and even win two games during the best-of-seven series. The Boston Evening Record noted, “dwellers in big cities are deprived of the social life that comes from living in smaller communities.”

Amid these bans, the American public often rallied around hygiene, making activities such as wearing face masks a sign of good citizenship, even patriotism. Numerous public health advocacy campaigns pushed preventative measures. A cartoon released by the Illinois State Department of Health featured a man smoking a cigarette, wearing a sign that said “Don’t talk into my face, don’t shake my hand, cough, sneeze and spit into your handkerchief, stay home if you have a cold.” A Red Cross ad made clear “the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.” The U.S. Public Health Service ran an ad featuring an older man chastising a boy to “use the hankerchief and do your bit to protect me!”

A courtroom set up outdoors in San Francisco in 1918.
During the 1918 influenza epidemic, court was held in open air in San Francisco.
Bettmann Archive

The use of masks was particularly popular in San Francisco. Both Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph and California governor William Stephens advocated for the practice, using the language of wartime sacrifice and patriotism to push the public. It worked, leading to a colorful array of masks profiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, including fancy chiffon veils for the upper class, homemade linen versions, creations resembling nosebags, from the Turkish-inspired muslin yashmak veil, and even “fearsome looking machines like extended muzzles.” While most citizens wore them, a loud minority complained, and many were fined (even Mayor Rolph was given a $50 fee by his own police chief when his mask slipped). When the city rules requiring masks were relaxed on November 21 at noon, announced with a whistle-blow sounded across the city, citizens ripped off their protective gear, and “the sidewalks and runnels were strewn with the relics of a torturous month.”

One of the more unique reports on the influenza’s impact on regular life comes from a piece in the Toledo Blade newspaper of Ohio, simply called Flugrams. In short, sentence-or-two asides, it paints a picture of life altered. A story of a man borrowing a magazine from a drugstore so he’ll have something to do during the night cooped up inside. An observation that “with the movies closed nightly, it’s an ordinary night to see the youths of the neighborhood shooting crap under the street light.” One of the more poignant anecdotes features a couple at home: “Mr. and Mrs. Delbert Hendricks, 2262 Detroit Av., take turns waiting on each other. Both have a touch of the flu.”

Lessons of influenza’s spread

The history of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, as covered in the newspapers of the day, suggests that closing off our public spaces works. In the aftermath of influenza, it was clear the challenges of siloing and separating urban dwellers were enormous. As a 1922 Guardian article, cited by Tomes, noted, “But of what use is it to advise a modern urban population to avoid traveling on trains or trams, to ask the rising generation to abandon the pictures, or to warn the unemployed to take plenty of nourishing good and avoid worry?” But while many efforts at the time weren’t perfect—and public pushes to relax social controls when the disease seemed to wane led to relaxed safeguards and in many cases new waves of infections and deaths—they did help.

Research conducted in 2006 and 2007 for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by researchers at the University of Michigan found that so-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” basically public orders to stop gathering, isolate, and quarantine, made a significant difference.

“Cities that reacted early and [in a sustained way] using more than one of those three options did better in terms of mortality than those that did not,” says Howard Markel, a University of Michigan physician and historian of medicine. Closing public spaces was an effective action taken by leaders, but only successfully enacted by the public.

Historian J. Alex Navarro, one of the main researchers behind the University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia, said that the real heroes of the pandemic were “average everyday citizens.”


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