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.