Asheville Archives: The 1918 influenza changes social norms

SPOOKED: In October 1918, Asheville residents began wearing medical masks to avoid the risk of exposure to influenza. Citizens also filled flasks with mouthwash to combat the disease via good oral hygiene. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville; photo embellishment by Scott Southwick

“Certain sections of the downtown business districts yesterday seemed to harbor premature Halloween celebrators,” declared the Oct. 16, 1918, edition of The Asheville Citizen. According to the newspaper, both men and women participated “in the weird festivities.”

Meanwhile, the city’s bewildered youths observed the disguised adults with chagrin, convinced “the older folks had stolen a march on them[.]” Youthful discontent, however, quickly ceased when “it dawned upon them that the adults who they saw with faces masked were taking precautions against influenza.”

Millions would die worldwide on account of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Locally, thousands fell ill, with a death toll of 138 by December 1918. Statewide, 20 percent of North Carolina’s population was infected between 1918 and 1919 (see “Asheville Archives: The Red Cross and Masonic Temple respond to the 1918 flu pandemic,” Nov. 21, 2017, Xpress).

But in October 1918, local residents were still in the early stages of responding to the disease. “Yesterday,” the Oct. 16 article continued, “was the first time that Ashevilleians have appeared generally with the white mouth and nose coverings.” By midafternoon, more masked figures were spotted on the streets. By nightfall, the paper reported, “The sight had lost its novelty. Wearers are expected to multiply now that the ice has been broken.”

The social impact of the epidemic extended well beyond medical masks. According to the same day’s paper, the health scare led to the re-emergence of flasks, despite the state’s 1908 referendum on Prohibition (see “Asheville Archives: Prohibitionists seek to reform Asheville,” May 29, Xpress). Rather than nipping on whiskey, owners now carried mouthwash in the containers. “[I]t’s easier to practice oral hygiene when the disinfectant comes from the receptacle which formerly held … Scotch,” the paper observed.

Similarly, medication was also more openly used. “No longer is one considered indifferent to the sensibilities of others when he munches a pill or swallows a powder in public and no one’s reputation for gentility is affected when a capsule is publicly devoured,” The Asheville Citizen stated.

Just as social norms were turned upside down, annual traditions were also altered. On Oct. 31, 1918, the paper wrote: “Spooks and spectres, ghosts and hobgoblins, together with all other aerial characters who usually are abroad in the land of this, their favorite night, will peregrinate under restrictions here this evening.” The city’s health regulations, which prohibited large gatherings, would “apply to sheet shrouded apparitions, as well,” the article reported.

Such precaution was imperative, The Asheville Citizen continued. According to the health authorities, “mothers who permit their tots to join celebrating groups may do more to expose the little ones to the malady … than can be overcome by weeks of a ‘closed city.’”

The newspaper went on to speculate that the city’s latest restrictions might help revive former Scottish and English traditions associated with the holiday. “For years fireside gatherings featured Halloween celebrations in those countries, with many ceremonies by which future sweethearts were discovered,” the paper noted.

Of course rules — no matter the year, decade or century — are meant to be broken. On Nov. 1, 1918, The Asheville Citizen reported that despite local ordinances, “small bands of boys were seen in various sections” of town.

In general, the article observed, “people in Asheville seem to think that the danger of the influenza has passed.” Health authorities, the paper emphasized, felt otherwise. “There were forty new cases of influenza reported in the city yesterday,” The Asheville Citizen reported. “The total number of cases since the epidemic started is 3,479.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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