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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

The 1918-19 Pandemic

Poster from the Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association, Troy, New York, 1918 (courtesy National Library of Medicine)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

My protagonist, Rollie, returns from war in April 1919 a widower, because his wife has recently died from what people mistakenly call the "Spanish flu."

 

The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which infected some 500 million people worldwide, of whom at least 50 million died, killed 675,000 Americans. According to historical analysis by the CDC, mortality ran high in very young children, adults from ages twenty to forty, and those above sixty-five.

 

The twenty-to-forty age group illustrates how returning soldiers and sailors spread the disease, whether in military encampments or among the civilian population. Washington State was no exception, as two naval training stations and the most important army camp were hotbeds of infection.

 

Seattle officials at first downplayed the danger, after which they issued ordinances banning social gatherings, shutting theaters, closing schools, and instructing police to enforce the laws against spitting on the street. When these measures failed to slow the spread, the city's leaders, thundering against the populace, enacted further restrictions and threatened fines for infractions.

 

For instance, if you wanted to ride a trolley, you had to wear a mask, and the mask must have at least six thicknesses, rather than the usual four. Acid commentary ensued. After all, if nobody understood the disease, how could anyone say how thick the mask should be?

 

The criticism underlined how powerless medical science was. With typical bravado, the city's leading health authority trumpeted the effectiveness of influenza serum, which, in fact, provided little or no protection. Further, if the flu virus didn't kill its victims, opportunistic bacterial infections might, and in those days, no antibiotics existed.

 

Nevertheless, the infection rate petered out. The disease did rebound in December for another month or two; announcements of weddings and funerals held in homes rather than houses of worship suggest how people coped with the ban on public functions. Toward the end of February 1919, the plague vanished from Seattle, having killed an estimated 1,400 among a population of 315,000, a relatively low mortality rate. Other cities were less lucky.

 

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Parenting Advice, WWI Era

Luther Emmett Holt, MD, eminent pediatrician, championed pasteurization, unusual for his time, and eugenics, a more mainstream position (undated photograph courtesy National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

My protagonist, Rollie Birch, returns from Over There in 1919 and scandalizes the town that reveres him as a war hero by choosing to raise his infant daughter by himself. So I looked for a parenting book from those years to see what advice the experts were dishing out.

 

The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children's Nurses, appeared in multiple editions before, during, and after the war, the most popular guide of its time. The author, L. Emmett Holt, MD, offered rigorous instructions for pasteurizing raw milk—the only kind available—at 155˚ F. for thirty minutes, in which case you had to use it within twenty-four hours, or boiled one hour, in which case the milk would keep two or three weeks.

 

Either way, the stuff must have tasted mighty appetizing. Such were the days before flash heating, but you had no choice; back then, so many babies died from milk containing pathogens.

 

As for hands-on childcare, Holt counseled feeding on a strict schedule and deplored the instinct to pick up a fussing infant; no healthy baby, he averred, would cry for more than twenty minutes. (Rollie's daughter ignores this rule.) Further, the doctor warned against playing with children younger than six months, which would make them nervous and irritable, and disliked the notion of playing with infants at all.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, he cautioned against kissing infants, even on the cheek or forehead, for fear of transmitting diphtheria, tuberculosis, syphilis, and other diseases.

 

Rollie reads this and laughs.

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Firing a Seattle Teacher

Men registering for the draft, New York City, June 5, 1917 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

In late February 1919, the Seattle Times reported that someone had run an advertisement attacking a West Seattle High School history teacher for being a "Hun" and "un-American." The first charge almost certainly stemmed from ignorance concerning his name; he was Swiss, not German. As for his "Americanism," he had declined to salute the flag, a refusal he ascribed to the ceremony itself, and which he'd later recanted.

 

However, he was also an avowed conscientious objector; his enemies said he "fed ideas" to his classes.

 

A blind poll among his ninety or so students showed a twenty-to-one margin of support. Nevertheless, the school board fired him, saying that they couldn't have a conscientious objector as a teacher; what if everyone had been a conscientious objector when the nation declared war?

 

The newspaper reports leave much unsaid, as they always do. But you sense that the teacher's real crime was encouraging his students to think critically, which the vast majority appreciated.

 

What's more, according to the Selective Service Act of 1917 and its revisions, he'd most likely done nothing wrong. If he'd passed his thirtieth birthday, he wouldn't have had to register for the draft until mid-September 1918, and not at all if he'd reached the age of forty-five. Further, failing to register would have attracted attention and left him open to punishment, yet the newspaper reports said nothing about this. Finally, the act did allow for conscientious objection, though only on religious grounds.

 

Consequently, I'm guessing this teacher's viewpoint was entirely theoretical, maybe spoken of in class to spark discussion. With nothing else to hang him for, his enemies fixed on it, and the school board went along.

 

So much for academic freedom and the war to make the world safe for democracy.

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The Young Women in White

Schneck, 1917, Acme Litho. Co. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Building on last week's post about the Seattle parade, here's more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

In the parade, the white horses, white flower petals, and young women in white dresses all played to symbolism of feminine purity. Why?

 

Not for the first time in history, but in a context particular to the First World War, belligerents sought to persuade their able-bodied male citizens that they must fight to save womanhood. The idea pervaded recruitment propaganda in Britain and the United States, likely because neither country had been invaded, and so had no self-evident reason to defend itself.

 

When Congress declared war in April 1917, American recruiters had to rouse a nation comfortably at peace. To do so, they evoked wartime events that had not budged neutrality one inch when they happened but were now recast to prompt every man to do his duty or risk being called less than a man. A key reference point was the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

 

While the invasion was taking place, the press failed to convey its true horror and went for the sensational. Though the invaders executed thousands of Belgian civilians, committing arson and pillage, alleged rapes and mutilations of nuns, women, and young girls were what made headlines. Even as American newspapers exploited these lurid stories for the shock value, most reserved judgment, doubting that the disciplined German Army could have permitted such outrages.

 

Then, in May 1915, a German submarine sank the liner Lusitania, killing almost 1200 people, including 128 Americans. In what amounted to a publicist's perfect storm, a week later, the British government published an official account of the Belgian invasion atrocities, mentioning the firing squads, burning, and looting but playing up accusations of rapes and mutilation, which rested on hearsay evidence from unsworn witnesses.

 

That lapse went largely unnoticed, and the report electrified American opinion. If the Germans could sink the Lusitania, mightn't they have committed sexual atrocities in Belgium? Isolationists could argue that was still none of America's business, but the perceived outrages wouldn't go away. For instance, The New York Tribune, a pro-Allied paper, printed a drawing of a widowed Belgium comforting a weeping Miss Columbia. The caption suggests attitudes common to the time: "At Least They Only Drown Your Women."

 

Come 1917, then, American recruiters had no trouble tapping into beliefs about German atrocities and, tacitly or explicitly, using them to goad to action any man who called himself a man. The poster above, promoted by the Hollywood film industry, employs blatant sexual imagery, with a half-clad Miss Columbia--in white, of course.

 

But the propagandists were just getting started.

 

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Not Just a Parade

From the front page of the Seattle Times, April 26, 1919. Note the evergreen shoulder patch, emblem of the Wild West Division but, more important, the hero-worshiping sister/sweetheart/wife.

 

 

 

Here's a nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

 

To soak up the historical background, I read several months' worth of the Seattle Times from 1919 and learned about a parade in late April welcoming home some four hundred soldiers from Over There.

 

But it wasn't just a parade. It was as though a phalanx of hopes, attitudes, prejudices, expectations, and flat-out misconceptions marched through Seattle that day, not just men from the 361st Infantry Regiment, 91st ("Wild West") Division. And the pride, earnestness, gratitude, awkwardness, and ignorance on display provide a stew of conflict in which my protagonists, a man and a woman, have to swim.

 

The parade organizers mixed solemnity with "stunts," a word typically applied then to party games or entertainments. The soldiers, supposedly the stars of the show, made up the rear. Next came white horses drawing a large gold star, to commemorate the fallen. Farther up, young women in white rode the running boards of cars and strewed white flower petals along the route.

 

Ahead of them walked Elk Lodge brothers dressed in feather headdresses and war paint, while leading the column were police officers wearing chaps who fired off blanks from their pistols. Cowboys and Indians; a Wild West "stunt."

 

I tried beginning my novel with this scene and wound up cutting it. But my male protagonist is a soldier who thinks the hoopla insults his dead friends and wonders what country he's come home to. That newspaper article was a gold mine.

 

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