How the 1918 Pandemic Frayed Social Bonds

The influenza pandemic did long-lasting damage to relationships in some American communities. Could the mistrust have been prevented?

A woman sits reading a book while wearing a flu mask.
A woman in a flu mask during the 1918 flu pandemic. (Topical Press Agency via Getty Images)

When officials in Seattle announced a citywide lockdown, 15-year-old Violet Harris was overjoyed that she no longer had to go to school. “Good idea? I’ll say it is!” she wrote in her diary, excerpted at length in USA Today. “The only cloud in my sky is that the [School] Board will add the missed days on to the end of the term.” But as the reality of quarantine set in, Harris grew bored. Unable to leave home, she whiled away the hours by sewing a dress to wear to school when it reopened and experimenting with new recipes from the local paper, producing a particularly dreadful batch of fudge, half of which she ended up throwing out. It seems that the full weight of the crisis dawned on her only when she received the startling news that her best friend, Rena, was sick with the Spanish Flu. A week later, after Rena had recovered, the two spoke on the phone. “I asked [Rena] what it felt like to have the influenza, and she said, ‘Don’t get it.’”

If history repeats itself, it’s only because human nature stays relatively constant. Reading through newspaper articles and diaries written during the 1918 influenza pandemic, I felt an eerie flash of recognition. The dark jokes, anxious gossip, and breathless speculation reminded me of scrolling through Twitter over the past few weeks, watching people wrestle with life under quarantine by memeing through the crisis. Despite many similarities to the present moment, lockdown in 1918 was nevertheless a much lonelier experience than it is today. Lacking the many communication technologies that have allowed us to stay in contact with friends and family, early-20th-century Americans also struggled with the sudden loss of strong community ties, an experience that, to many, even outweighed the fear of a deadly and contagious disease.

As hospitals filled with patients and American cities went into lockdown, many people alternated between alarm and amusement, panicking about the pandemic one moment and joking about it the next. Harris was especially entertained by a directive requiring Seattle residents to wear masks in public. “Gee!” she wrote. “People will look funny—like ghosts.” She drew doodles of people in face masks in the margins of her diary and pasted in an article about the latest face-mask fashions.

Many people quickly grew furious with the inconveniences of isolation. “We were quarrentined [sic] on account of the Spanish Influenza and everyone is mad,” reads a letter written by a soldier stationed in South Carolina. Another soldier was annoyed that the quarantine prevented him from sending his family a Christmas gift. In St. Louis, Health Commissioner Max Starkloff made the controversial decision to order the closure of schools, movie theaters, bars, and—most devastatingly—public sporting events. The papers were in an uproar: “INFLUENZA THREATENS FOOTBALL HERE,” blared the St. Louis Globe Democrat. “MEASURES OF THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT CAUSING THE TEAMS MUCH UNEASINESS.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dedicated article after article to the subject: “QUARANTINE MAY LAST FOUR WEEKS; FOOTBALL SET BACK,” read one headline. “THE FOOTBALL GAMES ARE ALL OFF. THE SPANISH ‘FLU’ HAS PUT A DAMPER ON THE GRIDIRON,” read another.

During the initial stage of the crisis, people worried loudly about the ways in which public-health measures were rupturing their daily routines, unwilling or perhaps unable to anticipate the more severe ramifications of the crisis. But in certain places, as the death toll began to rise, a sense of desperation set in, resulting in dark consequences for human relationships.

Because of the isolated nature of quarantine, the 1918 pandemic was suffered largely in private. Unable to lean on their friends and neighbors for support, people experienced the crisis alone in houses with shuttered windows. “I stayed in all day and didn’t even go to Rena’s,” Harris wrote in her diary. “Mama doesn’t want us to go around more than we need to.”

These individual feelings of loneliness compounded, in some cases eroding once-strong community bonds. “People were actually afraid to talk to one another,” said Daniel Tonkel, an influenza survivor, during a 1997 interview for PBS’s American Experience. “It was almost like Don’t breathe in my face; don’t look at me and breathe in my face, because you may give me the germ that I don’t want, and you never knew from day to day who was going to be next on the death list.”

John M. Barry, the author of The Great Influenza, told me that feelings of loneliness during the pandemic were worsened by fear and mistrust, particularly in places where officials tried to hide the truth of the influenza from the public. “Society is largely based on trust when you get right down to it, and without that there’s an alienation that works its way through the fabric of society,” he said. “When you had nobody to turn to, you had only yourself.” In his book, Barry details reports of families starving to death because other people were too scared to bring them food. This happened not only in cities but also in rural communities, he told me, “places where you would expect community and family and neighborly feeling to be strong enough to overcome that.” In an interview in 1980, Glenn Hollar described the way the flu frayed social ties in his North Carolina hometown. “People would come up and look in your window and holler and see if you was still alive, is about all,” he said. “They wouldn’t come in.”

By December 1918, the number of new cases tapered off, and American society began to return, gradually, to normal. (“PUBLIC WILL GET ITS FIRST LOOK AT 1918 FOOTBALL, WHEN BAN LIFTS, TOMORROW,read a headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) However, the solitary aspect of the epidemic also affected the way that it was memorialized. As the disease stopped its spread, the public’s attention quickly shifted to the end of World War I, undermining the cathartic rituals that societies need to get past collective traumas. In the decades after the sickness, the flu lodged in the back of people’s mind, remembered but not often discussed. The American writer John Dos Passos, who caught the disease on a troop ship, never mentioned the experience in any detail. “It never got a lot of attention, but it was there, below the surface,” Barry said.

More than 80 years later, the novelist Thomas Mullen wrote The Last Town on Earth, a fictional account of the 1918 flu. In an interview after the book’s publication, Mullen commented on “a wall of silence surrounding survivors’ memories of the 1918 flu,” which was “quickly leading to the very erasure of those memories.” The historian Alfred W. Crosby deemed it “America’s forgotten pandemic.”

In many places, the loneliness and suspicion caused by the flu continued to pervade American society in subtle ways. To some, it seemed that something had been permanently lost. “People didn’t seem as friendly as before,” John Delano, a New Haven, Connecticut, resident, said in 1997. “They didn’t visit each other, bring food over, have parties all the time. The neighborhood changed. People changed. Everything changed.”

However, Barry reassured me, this was not universally the case. In his research, he found that communities came together in places where local leadership spoke honestly about the danger of influenza. “There was certainly plenty of fear … nonetheless, you didn’t seem to find the kind of disintegration that occurred in other places,” he said. In cities where proactive public-health commissioners exhibited strong leadership, he argues in his book, people maintained faith in one another.

Seattle Commissioner of Health J. S. McBride, for instance, rapidly imposed firm public-health measures and even volunteered his services at an emergency hospital. In November 1918, he commended Seattle residents for “their co-operation in observing the drastic, but necessary, orders which have been issued by us during the influenza epidemic.” McBride’s actions may have been what allowed Seattleites like Violet Harris to remember the epidemic as a somewhat boring time.

After six weeks of lockdown, public gathering spaces in Seattle finally reopened for business. “School opens this week,” Harris wrote in her diary. “Thursday! Did you ever? As if they couldn’t have waited till Monday!”