The Influenza virus, more widely known as the flu, has been around for centuries, and every year, this virus mutates to infect those who have already developed immunity to the previous year's flu either through vaccination or through recovery. The version of the virus that had developed in 1918 has been especially deadly, and despite the confusing name, this flu pandemic wasn't limited to or started in Spain, it was a global crisis that killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide on all continents.
About a third of the total world popular was infected by the disease, and government efforts globally imposed regulations like hand-washing and mask-wearing in the absence of a vaccine or any known treatment for the virus. Today, all this sounds painfully familiar, as virtually all of us are required to meet similar rules today. Unfortunately, doctors didn't know many crucial things about the epidemiology of viruses back in the day, which made the efforts to limit the pandemic a lot less effective than the social distancing practices imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the lives of ordinary people like you and me were eerily similar to what we are experiencing today and these 18 vintage photos depicting life during the Spanish Flu definitely strike a chord.
1. A young couple on the streets in London in 1919. Their masks fail to cover their noses
2. People believed back then was that the flu made the air toxic, especially indoors, which led to the creation of indoor breathing contraptions like this one
3. Two soldiers sharing a cigarette light near the camp and military hospital at Etaples in France believed by some British scientists to have been the epicenter of the virus
4. A bus conductor refusing entrance to an unmasked man in Seattle, USA
5. The USA was one of the first countries to make wearing a mask compulsory in 1918. This photo depicts a typist at work in a mask in New York
6. Spain was one of the first countries to be heavily hit by the virus. In this photo, you can see Red Cross nurses wearing masks
7. Face masks became essential during this time, with the NYC Board of Health making a statement we can still relate to: "better to be ridiculous than dead"
8. Some believed that gargling with saltwater could help prevent the deadly flu. A group of men in Camp Dix, New Jersey, do exactly that in the image below
9. In an attempt to prevent the spread of the flu, medical officers conducted an experiment by spraying a disinfectant solution called dichloramine-T down 800 soldiers' throats. This approach failed to work
10. Mass gatherings, schools, theaters, and nonessential businesses were closed off during the Spanish Flu pandemic in New York City
11. One of the most vulnerable groups were poorer children, as they couldn't even afford masks. Here, you can see a group of American kids wearing small bags with Camphor oil around their necks - "a good way" to protect yourself against the virus
12. Unlike the current pandemic, the symptoms of the Spanish Flu were severe and immediate, so healthy people weren't believed to be carriers of the disease and continued to work
13. As the 4th wave of the disease had struck London in 1920, masked cleaners sprayed public transportation with an anti-bacterial spray like this man disinfecting the top of a bus
14. Another differentiating factor between the Spanish Flu and COVID-19 is the people whom the virus affected the most. Kids, like these Japanese schoolchildren, and those in the age range of 20-35 years were the most susceptible to the Spanish Flu
15. Outdoor court hearings like this one in San Francisco were another way people believed they could avoid the toxic air
16. Sick people like these soldiers in Arkansas were often placed together in sick wards, which ended up only aiding the spread of the disease
17. A group of policemen in Seattle wearing face masks
18. A vaccine for the Spanish Flu became widely available only in the 1940s. Below, you can see a patient receiving the vaccine