The History of the Great 1918 Flu Pandemic: We All Wore Masks

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to learn about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, a three-year disaster that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide and unquestionably affected the lives of any of your ancestors living in the years 1918-1920.

Influenza is a disease, makes you weak all in your knees;
‘Tis a fever ev’ybody sure does dread;
Puts a pain in ev’y bone, a few days an’ you are gone
To a place in de groun’ called de grave.

—“Influenza,” lyrics found on American Memory: the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. Song sung by Ace Johnson, Clemens State Farm, Brazoria, Texas, April 16, 1939.

Earlier this year, despite having had a flu shot, I ended up catching the flu. Anyone who has had the flu knows how truly miserable it is. When you are suffering from it, you can easily understand how someone could die from its symptoms. Although still deadly, the flu does not strike the terror in people’s minds that it once did. In fact many people take a wait and see approach, frequently opting not to get the yearly influenza vaccination shot.

When many people think of our ancestors and the flu, they automatically think of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—and with good reason. This was one of the deadliest flu pandemics in history.

What Is Spanish Influenza? Dr. Rupert Blue Tells about It, Times-Picayune newspaper article 6 October 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 6 October 1918, page 1

From January 1918 to December 1920, this flu pandemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, nearly 675,000 in the United States alone.[i] By contrast, 16 million lives were lost during World War I, which was still ongoing during the Spanish flu pandemic’s first year. Why was this flu different from previous forms of influenza? One significant difference in this deadly strain was that young adults were affected just as much as the usual at-risk groups: young children and the elderly.[ii]

This influenza pandemic touched everyone’s lives whether they came down with the virus or not. Efforts to curb the spread of the flu disaster included requiring people to wear facemasks, and discouraging public meetings. The committee of the American Public Health Association decreed that non-essential meetings and gatherings in crowded rooms were dangerous. Some of the APHA recommendations included the closing of “saloons, dance halls, and cinemas.”[iii]

Influenza Mask Wearing Compulsory: Health Board, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 11 December 1918

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 11 December 1918, page 1

The implementation of these public safety health precautions shows how seriously the influenza pandemic was taken. A startling example of this is described in the following article from a 1918 Washington newspaper, reporting that a public health officer shot a person on the street who refused to don a mask.

Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 28 October 1918

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 28 October 1918, page 2

The vast movement of troops caused by World War I meant that an illness that would normally be quickly contained instead had worldwide consequences. While the 1918 pandemic is the one that often gets remembered, there have been other epidemics including those of a more recent nature, like the recent Swine Flu. There is no doubt that the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the only one that may have affected your family. According to the website flu.gov there have been four flu pandemics since 1918.[i]

Do you have an ancestor who had the flu during the Spanish flu pandemic? Want to learn more about the history of that outbreak? Good sources for researching historical epidemics are the books Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present by George Childs Kohn, and America’s Forgotten Epidemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby.

Don’t forget to search for old newspaper articles about the flu on GenealogyBank. By searching on the word “influenza” and narrowing your search by date and place you will be able to find articles of how the pandemics affected your ancestor’s community and other parts of the United States.


[i] Pandemic Flu History. Available at http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/index.html.

[ii] The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. National Archives and Records Administration. Available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/.

[iii] The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Available at http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/.

Old Diseases & Early Medical Terms in Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of terms used in old newspapers to describe our ancestors’ diseases and medical conditions—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

Here is the 18th century folk ballad “O Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” from a 1794 newspaper.

"O Dear, What Can the Matter Be?" folk ballad, Weekly Museum newspaper article 22 February 1794

Weekly Museum (New York, New York), 22 February 1794, page 4

Although this old ballad doesn’t have anything to do with medical conditions, it describes my feelings precisely when I encounter accounts of diseases such as tetters, scurf and morphew in early newspapers like this 1736 advertisement.

To Be Sold, New-York Weekly Journal newspaper advertisement 29 March 1736

New-York Weekly Journal (New York, New York), 29 March 1736, page 4

“O Dear,” I think, “Are these strange diseases of yesteryear, or something we might contract today?”

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Many of these early diseases are now sub-categorized into specific medical diagnoses, while others still exist but under new names. For example, in the 1736 newspaper advertisement above, Mrs. Edwards advertised products to cure tetters, a skin condition, which today describes the symptoms of eczema, herpes or ringworm.

What if you find an obituary or newspaper article about one of your ancestors that names a disease or medical condition using old terms you’re not familiar with? It’s important to understand the meanings of these early medical terms—otherwise you might miss an important piece of your family history.

Test your knowledge of these old diseases and medical conditions with this fun Early Medical Terms quiz. Match the old medical terms in the first column with the definitions on the right. The answers can be found at the bottom of the quiz. If you miss any, be sure to read the rest of the blog article—which provides definitions for these early medical terms as illustrated in historical newspapers.

early medical terms genealogy quiz

Acites or Ascites: In 1849, Sand’s Sarsaparilla was recommended as a permanent cure for a wide variety of illnesses, including acites, probably the same as ascites or abdominal swelling.

Sands' Sarsaparilla, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 19 February 1849

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 19 February 1849, page 1

Ague: This is another term for malaria, a disease often spread by mosquitoes, as noted in this 1875 account by J. G. Truman.

The Ague--Its Cause and Cure, Progressive Communist newspaper article 1 October 1875

Progressive Communist (Cedar Vale, Kansas), 1 October 1875, page 6

Barber’s Itch: This is an inflammation of the hair follicles, typically affecting the area around a man’s beard. It may be caused by eczema or ringworm.

Health Talks--Barber's Itch, Evening News newspaper article 14 January 1922

Evening News (San Jose, California), 14 January 1922, page 6

Biliousness and Bilious Fever: This ailment described a variety of gastric illnesses, ranging from nausea to bile disorders of the gall bladder or liver, as seen in these two advertisements from 1920 and 1840.

Dr. Thacher's Liver and Blood Syrup, Marietta Journal newspaper advertisement 2 July 1920

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 2 July 1920, page 3

Peters' Pills, Wabash Courier  newspaper advertisement 17 October 1840

Wabash Courier (Terre Haute, Indiana), 17 October 1840, page 4

Dropsy: Dropsy is edema or excessive swelling, a common ailment, which afflicted former Texas Governor James S. Hogg in 1905. Another reference to edema was anasarca.

photo of James S. Hogg, Baltimore American newspaper photograph 19 October 1905

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 19 October 1905, page 4

Grippe or La Grippe: The grippe is another name for the flu or influenza. In 1843, opponents of President John Tyler coined a variation of the disease: “The Tyler Grippe.”

The Tyler Grippe, Constitution newspaper article 9 August 1843

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 9 August 1843, page 2

Jail Fever: This is an early term for typhus or typhoid fever, which often spread quickly in confined areas such as jails. In 1828 there was a report of jail fever at the Bellevue Penitentiary in New York, which also sickened the “keepers” and physicians.

Jail Fever in New York, Boston Traveler newspaper article 22 April 1828

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 April 1828, page 2

King’s Evil: In the above example for Acites, the advertisement referred to King’s Evil, which indicated tuberculosis, scrofula or glandular swelling.

Morphew: Morphew was a type of blisters, often associated with scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. (See the 1736 Mrs. Edwards advertisement above.)

Pest and Pest Houses: Also known as the “Black Death,” the pest is another name for the plague, a highly contagious and fatal disease. In 1782, when smallpox was prevalent, a reference was made to pest houses, which were “situated as not to endanger travellers.” In this sense, a pest house was a type of isolation dwelling or hospital where a person with any contagious disease might be housed.

pest houses in Waterbury Connecticut, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 28 February 1782

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 28 February 1782, page 3

Scurf: This is another medical term for dandruff, or cradle cap when applied to babies.

Scurf in the Head, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper article 9 January 1875

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 9 January 1875, page 1

Tetters: This is a broad description of a variety of skin diseases, such as eczema, herpes or ringworm. (See the 1736 Mrs. Edwards advertisement above.)

Variola: This was another name for smallpox, and often describes a mild form of the affliction. In 1773, variolae patients from Nevis did not wish to be inoculated, as this was an “extraordinary infringement of their liberty.”

smallpox innoculation in Nevis, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 31 December 1773

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 31 December 1773, page 3