Thursday, February 25, 2016

Impact of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic on Your Family

Partial clipping from the front page of
The Pittsburgh Press, October 7, 1918
I've written before about how scary life must have been during past epidemics (see post at the end). One of my great-grandmothers and an extraordinary number of others died of influenza in 1918, so the fear felt across the country is understandable.

Although your ancestors probably knew someone who had died from influenza, there are other ways the epidemic would have impacted their lives. A search of Pittsburgh newspaper articles from that year shows how various groups were affected:

  • General Public - All public gatherings and meetings were prohibited, which led to many closures such as motion picture establishments, theaters, dance halls, pool rooms, and sport venues. Even some Halloween celebrations were banned. People were asked to walk whenever possible, instead of using public transportation, and to avoid any unnecessary shopping.
  • Orphans - A Pittsburgh newspaper in November 1918 reported, "The children's service bureau announced yesterday that there are 100 children in Allegheny county who are known to have been made orphans and are homeless as a result of the epidemic. The bureau is trying to find private homes for them." 
  • Teachers/Students - Schools, including universities, were closed. Apparently during this period, teachers were asked to visit the homes of their students to see if any were sick, with the intention that their findings would help decide when classes could resume.
  • Clergy - As you can see from the newspaper headline above, state health departments ordered churches to close and funeral services were not allowed.
  • Police Officers - Police patrolled the streets to make sure pedestrians kept moving, and officers "were instructed to arrest persons who spit on sidewalks or in other public places..."
  • Bar Owners - The sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited, in an attempt to eliminate the gathering of individuals. This included saloons, hotel bars, and social clubs. Restaurants remained open as long as they did "not allow patrons to loiter on the premises."
  • Healthcare Workers - Doctors were required to make daily reports of sick patients; the Red Cross sent out letters searching for women in the community with any nursing experience, and hospital visitations were banned. The federal government took over Pittsburgh's Magee Hospital to care for the city's sick soldiers and sailors.
  • Undertakers - At the top of a Pittsburgh newspaper's death notices, this statement was printed: "All funeral services and all interments are private, by order of the State Commissioner of Health." Even when other restrictions were lifted, public funerals were still banned. "The undertakers of Pittsburgh are working under many difficulties. These men have given splendid service, and through their efforts Pittsburgh has been saved from many distressing scenes such as occurred in other places. It is difficult for them to find time to conduct private funerals as rapidly as is desired. Public funerals consume so much more time than private funerals it would be impossible for them to proceed if the order in question were rescinded."

As you can see, even if none of your family died during the influenza epidemic, it's likely that their lives were still greatly affected by it.

1 comment:

  1. Joanne,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!


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