100 Years Ago: Cambridge leading up to the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic

Red Cross workers make anti-influenza masks for soldiers in camp. Boston. Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 165-WW-269B-026

By Elizabeth Adams Lasser, April 2020

During the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 as we quarantine at home, we have seen many references and comparisons in the national media to the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. What was happening in Cambridge at the time? How did residents respond?

Cambridge on the Eve of the Epidemic

August 31, 1918 dawned a busy day in Cambridge.  It was the end of the summer and parents were looking forward to Cambridge schools reopening on September 11th at 8:30am. Unbridled patriotism permeated the Cambridge air. Only the year before, the United States had entered The Great War and efforts to support the brutal conflict were on everyone’s mind. On this day, three Cambridge newspapers–the Cambridge Chronicle, Cambridge Sentinel, and Cambridge Tribune–ran stories about Cambridge citizens’ efforts to raise spirits and support the war.

One article reported a “War Service Day” to be held at Harvard Stadium, with a community sing-along of 21 popular songs.  An estimated 30,000 attendees were expected to crowd the stadium.1 Another story described how a women’s trade school in Cambridge had adjusted its curriculum to provide “an intensive course in typewriting and stenography for girls to meet the demands of this government for this service.”2 With most American men called to the European front, these skills were in high demand.

Newspapers had their share of advertisements and stories advocating the purchase of war savings stamps.3 A Boy Scout parade in Cambridge was planned to promote the stamps. It was the intention of Cambridge war saving societies “to have the employees of every shop and factory in Cambridge enrolled in this patriotic service.” 4

Advertisement advocating the purchase of war savings stamps in the August 31, 1918 issue of the Cambridge Chronicle

More sobering were the lists of war casualties of Cambridge men that appeared in the Cambridge newspapers. The parents of Charles Henry Peters of Locke Street were notified their son, a former employee of the Cambridge Ice Company, had been severely wounded “having served in the trenches for a while.” (He also had two other brothers serving abroad). Frank C. Sullivan of Raymond Street, a former student at Rindge Technical School, was also severely wounded. Only weeks earlier he had written his parents that he had been “slightly gassed.”5 Over 2000 Cambridge men would ultimately serve in World War I. 6

The newspapers of August 31st also touted the sendoff of over 100 Cambridge male draftees to three army camps across the country. At these crowded camps, men would receive military training before heading to the Western Front in Europe to join American Expeditionary Forces under General John Jack “Black Jack” Pershing. A group of African-American “colored” soldiers had just left Porter Square station for Camp Devens, 30 miles from Cambridge in Ayer, Massachusetts. To boost morale, Cambridge Mayor Edward W. Quinn visited various city draft headquarters and “distributed cigarettes and tobacco to boys with the city’s compliments and best wishes.”7

Edward W. Quinn was Cambridge’s mayor during World War I and the onset of the second wave of the Spanish Influenza

On the lighter news side in Cambridge, D.W. Griffith’s “Great Love,” a silent war drama starring actress Lilian Gish, debuted on Temple Street near Central Square.  It was recommended “every man, woman and child should see” it. 8

David Wark “D.W.” Griffith was considered one of the most important filmmakers of the early 20th century. He pioneered the feature-length movie and the cinematic technique of the closeup.9  

If Cantabrigians could not catch “The Great Love” in town, residents could easily jump on Cambridge’s relatively new underground subway to catch the film in Boston: “The electrification of horsecar lines beginning in 1889 and the completion of the subway extension from Boston in 1912, tied Cambridge closely to nearby cities and towns.”10 As a result, Cambridge’s population had been doubling every 16 years: “Transportation enhancements made Old Cambridge a more attractive location for suburban homes. Electrification speeded travel in 1894 when a new line on Huron Avenue created the streetcar suburb of West Cambridge.” 11

By the end of 1918, Cambridge’s population stood at 114,000. Only 30 years earlier, the population had been half that. Also, with the development of subway travel to Boston and other towns came the advent of “rush hour.” Later this would prove disastrous for Cambridge and other Massachusetts towns from a public health perspective.

Trouble Brewing

In the midst of the full-throated patriotism of 1918, an event was unfolding in downtown Boston that would prove as terrifying and life changing for Cambridge families as World War I. On August 26th, an outbreak of the “grippe” (an early 20th century term for the flu) was reported on a receiving ship docked at Commonwealth Pier in Boston Harbor.12 Two dozen sailors onboard had been sickened quickly with a highly contagious flu that affected their lungs. Victims of this flu could turn black and, when autopsied, their lungs were found to be heavily sodden with fluid. Despite the best attempts by the military, this flu had spread to the Boston civilian population by mid-September 1918.

With no internet or social media to disseminate news quickly, Cambridge–its citizens and its newspapers–were blissfully unaware as people crowded into Harvard stadium, street cars, subways, theaters, and, if in the military, packed in army camps.

Coming Soon:  Another blog post on Cambridge during the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic 

End Notes

  1. “War Service Day Will Be Celebrated in Stadium Tomorrow.” The Cambridge Tribune. 31 August 1918, pg. 1.
  2. “Give Up Girls’ Trade School.”  Cambridge Chronicle. 7 September 1918, pg. 1.
  3. World War I was expensive. To finance the war, the United States Treasury Department issued war savings postal stamps which were sold to individual citizens. Liberty Bonds, which were also sold, were purchased by businesses. “War Savings Stamps of the United States.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_savings_stamps_of_the_United_States. Accessed April 5, 2020. To see an example of a war savings stamp visit the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website: http://www.masshist.org/objects/cabinet/june2002/stamps.htm.
  4. “Lively Campaign for War Stamps.” Cambridge Chronicle. 31 August 1918. pg. 4.
  5. Cambridge List of War Casualties.”  Cambridge Chronicle, 31 August 1918, pg. 1, 4.
  6. Over 2000 young Cambridge men would ultimately serve in the land and naval forces according to Cambridge’s Mayor Edward Quinn in The Annual Reports Made to the City Council for the Year Ending March 31, 1918, pg. 18. Visit the Cambridge Public Library’s Cambridge Room to see scanned copies of the city’s annual reports. https://archive.org/details/cambridgepubliclibrary?and%5B%5D=subject%3A%22Cambridge+%28Mass.%29+Appropriations+and+expenditures+–+Periodicals%22&sort=date
  7. “Cambridge Men Leave for Camp.” Cambridge Chronicle, 31 August 1918, pg. 1.
  8. Advertisement found on pg. 8 of Cambridge Chronicle, 31 August, 1918.
  9. Biography.com Editors. (n.d.).  D.W. Griffith biography.  A & E Television Networks, Inc.  Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/filmmaker/dw-griffith
  10. Maycock, Susan E. and Charles M. Sullivan. Building Old Cambridge. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016, pg. 70.
  11. Ibid. pg. 71.
  12. “Fear Influenza Outbreak Among Soldiers May Spread.” Boston Globe, 6 September 1918, pg. 6.

For more reading on Cambridge during pandemics of the past, see Martha Henry’s article in Cambridge DaySmallpox, cholera, influenza around Cambridge: How the region endured pandemics of the past

For advice on how family genealogists can document the 2020 Covid-19 experience for the benefit of descendants see:  A Genealogist’s Perspective on Documenting this Pandemic