Daily Life in the 1918 Pandemic

While the pandemic was going on, people still had lives to live during the pandemic. Everyone was effected, and the 1918 flu pandemic, touched nearly every aspect of people’s lives.This section will touch on how different aspects of people’s daily lives were affected by the 1918 flu pandemic. 

Work was an important factor during the 1918 flu pandemic, as work was essential to people’s lives. Steps were taken to try to limit the spread, but it was not fool proof. Face masks were used, as can be seen in this picture of workers at a branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Calgary, but they did not prevent the spread of the disease among workers. For instance, the hardest hit group in Boston during the first wave were young male breadwinners, making up 47% of those affectedThis number is similar around the world, as because they were out and about more than any other group, as the prime workforce. As the 1918 flu pandemic spread through the workforce, other areas of people’s lives were impacted. 

Image: Staff of a Canadian bank wearing masks for protection.
As the 1918 flu Pandemic spread through the population, restrictions on people’s social lives began to be implemented. As can be seen in the poster dated to the 12th of October 1918, people were advised away from unnecessary social gatherings, but things like theatres, schools and churches were to be kept open if they were well ventilated, and thus deemed safe. Despite these fairly tame restrictions, people clamored for them to be reversed when the Flu seemed to slow down in early November 1918.  Some local Boards of Health bowed to public pressure and removed the bans on Public meetings, while others kept them in place, recognizing that, while the Flu seemed to be slowing, it was not over, and still a serious situation. 

Image: Influenza poster, October 12, 1918.

The spread of this infectious disease  promoted irrational fear and stigma with mixed responses by the civilians. As can be seen in the newspaper article, a clash between the Mayor of Toronto, Thomas Langton Church, and 2 Medical Officers of Health Colonel McCullough and Dr Risk as they accuse each other of being useless and ignorant of the issues related to the pandemic and raising fear rather than finding a solution together. The role of travel may be overemphasized when addressing the global spread of modern epidemics leading to constant xenophobic responses and stigmatizing people which has lasting effects on them such as psychological and political. It is evidenced that travel bans do not prevent outbreaks and the spread of diseases. World Health Organization has guidelines for naming a disease to avoid invoking fear of a specific race, animal or occupation. Intentional or not, blaming each other and creating an association between foreigners and an epidemic can be a rhetorical strategy to promote irrational fear and stigma among the people. 

Image: Article from The Globe, November 1, 1918.

The 1918-19 influenza pandemic affected different groups in society based on their socioeconomic status. As can be seen in the newspaper article the influenza created awful conditions taking a toll on the lives of Native Americans and Lumberjacks living in Northern Ontario.  Socioeconomic status and gender played a significant role in the spread of the 1918 flu pandemic, with poorer people and men generally affected first, and wealthier people and women affected after that. Studies of more recent influenza epidemics have also shown that there can clear class differentials in mortality due to lack of hygiene and poor working conditions in this type of illness. The negative associations between influenza- like illness and socioeconomic status, gender and wave during the epidemic makes the pandemic not socially neutral. 

Image: Article from The Globe, November 13 1918.

HIST1P50 is grateful to Co-Operative Education and Work Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada for its support of this project. We are also indebted to our community partners, the St. Catharines and Welland Canal Museum, The Niagara Falls History Museum, the Lincoln Museum, and the Nelles Manor Museum. Thanks also to the Co-Op Office at Brock University.

All content created by the students of HIST1P50, "Co-Operative Historical Projects" at Brock University.

All images sourced from Library and Archives Canada, the Archives of Ontario, and Defining Moments Canada.