Skip to main content

South Valley Journal

Sounds familiar: local reports on the 1918 influenza pandemic

May 21, 2020 11:01AM ● By Alison Brimley

The Red Cross solicited donations to help the war effort throughout WWI (1914-1918), but the flu epidemic increased its need for supplies, and volunteers were encouraged to make and donate gauze masks. (Library of Congress)

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

On Sept. 25, 1918, Salt Lake Valley residents were reading in the newspaper that despite all they’d heard about the new influenza epidemic, there had not yet been any cases reported in the area. By Oct. 10, the same papers were reporting that churches, schools, dance halls and “moving picture shows” had all been closed—mostly as a precaution.

“There does not appear to be any great amount of alarm over the situation at present,” a Salt Lake Tribune article reported. Yet by the end of the epidemic, Utah would lose more than 3,500 people to the Spanish flu.

In 1918, West Jordan was a rural community still more than 20 years away from being incorporated. Copper Hills and West Jordan High School didn’t exist. Neither did Jordan Valley Medical Center. Sports legend and mayor Marv Jenson had been born on a West Jordan farm just a year earlier. But the policies that altered everyday life for residents throughout the Salt Lake Valley would affect West Jordan residents as well.

For those who feel overwhelmed by today’s news, be glad you weren’t around in 1918. The coverage of flu-related deaths and policies was rivaled only by the amount of coverage on the first World War that would end just as the first wave of the epidemic was finally on the wane in Utah.

Still, reports from fall 1918 will have a ring of familiarity to the news junkie of spring 2020. Every day, papers reported on locals who had come down with, recovered from, or died, as a result of influenza. Perhaps most famous among those who succumbed in 1918 was then-president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph F. Smith, who passed away on Nov. 19 at the age of 80.

But lists of the deceased included Utahns of all ages. Unlike today’s pandemic, which poses most danger to the elderly and immunocompromised, the Spanish flu frequently targeted healthy people between the ages of 20 and 40. Many reports announced deaths of soldiers who had fallen ill in training camps or overseas. A reporter for the now-defunct Bingham Bulletin correctly predicted on Nov. 15, 1918, “it is very likely when the figures are obtainable for the year 1918 it will be shown that the disease carried off more men than did the battle.”

Like today, news reports also focused on the massive volunteer efforts underway. The Jordan Stake conducted a major linen drive in November, donating hundreds of articles to the Red Cross. The Red Cross also put out a call for “volunteer nurses” after exhausting all its regular employees.

Face masks were also a hot topic of conversation. Instructions for mask wearing told people to sterilize their fabric face-coverings every few hours by boiling them. Bingham proudly proclaimed itself the “first town in the state to wear masks,” even though the flu hadn’t yet struck the mining town. Bingham’s health officer Henry Standish was kept busy “arresting” residents who “were caught out without masks.”

When the flu did come to Bingham, half of the town’s doctors had left to help the war effort in Europe, leaving only three doctors to hold down the fort at home. Their hospitals overflowed, and sick family members were left at home. An editorial proclaimed their work “deserves praises equal to those who have faced the enemy on the firing line.”

Eventually, life began to return to normal—though many had lost family members and friends. By November, the disease was said to have “peaked,” and by early 1919, residents rejoiced that churches, schools and businesses were reopening.

But perhaps most eerily familiar is 1918’s answer to this question: “To panic or not to panic?” The Bingham Bulletin said about the flu, “there are many who are intensely afraid they will take it and many who say that they are not afraid at all and pay no attention. But being afraid or not afraid has nothing to do with its dangers…. The doctors are overworked, and nurses are unobtainable, and it is the duty of everyone to try to avoid contracting the disease.”

For more detailed information, visit https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-saltlakecity.html#.