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How the flu pandemics compare

Trolley operator and passengers, Seattle, WA, 1918

Trolley operator and passengers, Seattle, WA, 1918. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Shawn Downes, English Language Arts editor

Back in 1918, social distancing helped flatten the curve to allow life to return to normal.

On Nov. 11, 1918, World War I officially ended. Many people were celebrating as one of the worst wars the world had ever seen came to a close. However, just as the enemies on the battlefield were making peace with each other, a new foe was wrapping the world in its grip: the influenza pandemic of 1918.
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Influenza, or the “flu,” is a disease caused by the influenza virus. Between 1918 and 1920, a flu pandemic affected every part of the globe. A pandemic is a disease that affects a wide geographic area and a very high proportion of the population. Hundreds of millions of people became infected during the flu pandemic. Millions of people in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia were infected with the flu.

The flu of 1918 was labeled the “Spanish Flu” because many people thought the disease came from Spain. This was a mistaken idea. Countries fighting in WWI limited the kinds of news stories that could be published. Spain, however, was a neutral country. Because Spain was not fighting in the war, reporters there could cover whatever news they wanted, including the flu pandemic. Because stories about the flu were coming out of Spain, people thought the disease started there. So, they called the disease the Spanish Flu.

In the United States, local leaders tried to protect their communities during the pandemic. In Philadelphia, the first case of the flu was detected on Sept. 17, 1918. The next day the city launched a campaign against “coughing, spitting, and sneezing in public” in an attempt to slow the flu’s spread. When cases appeared in St. Louis, the city shut down public gatherings and had sick residents quarantine at home.

Sign from 1918 telling people who are sick with the flu to stay home. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When the flu began affecting Columbia, Missouri, Dr. Guy Noyes, the Dean of the University of Missouri medical school announced:

The epidemic can be kept under control and this community made more safe than the average if everyone will carefully and intelligently co-operate in trying to observe the few rules that will prevent the spread of the contagion. The disease is spread by coughing and sneezing. It is important to keep a distance from others by avoiding crowds. Each person should carry a handkerchief to cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze.

In cities like Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Seattle, there were rules about social distancing. People had to wear masks in public. Schools, churches, theaters, and businesses were closed. Public gatherings were banned. These measures paid off. The cities with the strictest rules about social distancing had the lowest rates of people getting sick with the flu.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, social distancing “flattened the curve” of flu cases. When cities relaxed their rules too soon, a new wave of flu infections swept in. As a result, restrictions had to be put back in place. Schools and businesses had to close. People had to don their masks again. They could not gather for parades and other celebrations.

In 1920, Warren Harding was elected President of the United States. He campaigned on a slogan of “back to normalcy.” In his inaugural address, President Harding told the American people that “Our supreme task is the resumption of our onward, normal way.” Life did return to normal. The flu pandemic ended. America sprang back to life and welcomed the “Roaring Twenties,” one of the most exciting, prosperous decades in American history.Chart of Influenza Pandemic in 1918.

Test Your Understanding

1. Based on the text, a neutral country is one that _______.

A. does not take sides with other countries in a war
B. does not like to cooperate with other countries
C. has a population of people who are not healthy
D. has news reporters who are not truthful

2. What is a central idea of the text?

A. The flu pandemic followed WWI.
B. The flu pandemic lasted from 1918 to 1920.
C. The flu pandemic affected most of the world.
D. The flu pandemic resulted in social distancing.

3. What is the author’s purpose for writing the text?

A. to provide information about particular cities
B. to inform people about a significant disease outbreak
C. to convince people that the flu was worse than a major war
D. to persuade people that they should behave in a certain manner

4. What is the meaning of restrictions?

A. advice
B. cures
C. guardians
D. limits

Grade Band: 3–5

Talk About It

What safety measures are people taking today that are similar to what people did during the 1918 flu pandemic?

Get Everyone Involved

Make a list of the types of activities you think people did to entertain and/or educate themselves while they were staying at home during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Dig Deeper

How has a pandemic from the past changed life today?

Use this printable version to test your child’s knowledge.


Andrews, Evan. “Why Was it Called the ‘Spanish Flu’?” History, 27 Mar. 2020.

Bristow, Nancy K. “What the 1918 Flu Pandemic Tells Us About Whether Social Distancing Works.” The Guardian, 29 Apr. 2020.

Kaltwasser, Jared. “Analysis: Spanish Flu Pandemic Proves Social Distancing Works.” Contagion Live, 5 Apr. 2020.

Keller, Rudi. “Experts: 1918 Flu Epidemic Offers Lessons for Today.” Kirksville Daily Express, 14 Mar. 2020.

Klein, Christopher. “When World War I and Pandemic Influenced the 1920 Presidential Election.” History, 9 Apr. 2020.

Roberts, H. Armstrong. “When WWI, Pandemic and Slump Ended, Americans Sprung into the Roaring Twenties.” History, 28 Apr. 2020.

Strochlic, Nina and Riley D. Champine. “How Some Cities ‘Flattened the Curve’ During the 1918 Flu Pandemic.” National Geographic, 27 Mar. 2020.

Answer Key

A. does not take sides with other countries in a war
C. The flu pandemic affected most of the world.
B. to inform people about a significant disease outbreak
D. limits

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