Now and Then: Comparing COVID-19 with Influenza Pandemic 1918-1919 | Instant News

meThis may seem like a truly unprecedented time, and for the most part, it is accurate. However, humanity has a history of facing a pandemic. The 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic circled around the world, and the Thurston Territory was not spared. In contrast to what happened a century ago, there are some similarities between COVID-19 and H1N1 Influenza 1918-1919, the last major pandemic to pass through Thurston County.

H1N1 influenza – “Spanish” flu

Influenza pandemic 1918-1919 is commonly known as the “Spanish” flu. However, the disease did not start in Spain, nor did it have a worse effect there. The pandemic occurred at the same time when most of Europe and the US were involved in World War I. In order not to appear weak against their enemies, the countries involved in the war minimized news reports of the spread of influenza. Spain was neutral during the war, so news reports were not restricted, leading to the public perception that Spain was the center of a pandemic. When Spanish King Alfonso XIII died of a type of flu, the “Spanish” flu was compacted to become a public lexicon.

Like COVID-19, H1N1 influenza is a respiratory virus that spreads through transmission of droplets and direct contact. Throughout Thurston County and the world, the effects of COVID-19 have similarities that are very similar to the flu of 1918-1919.

Empty Shelf

When news reports indicated that COVID-19 had reached Washington State, residents rushed to Costco and other retailers and began buying hand sanitizers, soap, bleach, bottled water, and toilet paper, resulting in empty shelves and worries about shortages. Distillers like areas Sandstone Distillery and Spirit Shoe Box responding to the increasing demand for cleaners, using their skills and ingredients to make recipes with recommended alcohol content, providing products to the police and firefighters, health workers, and the public.

Hygiene and pure medicine and supplements are public advertisements in the Washington Standard newspaper, published in Olympia in 1918 and 1919. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

New deficiencies have emerged, especially in the supply of meat and seeds and garden tools. Most of the meat processed for household consumption is done in large processing centers that have been closed after workers tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in a temporary decline in production. Seed shortages, such as hygiene supplies and toilet paper, occur because of a temporary increase in customer demand. All deficiencies and disturbances are considered temporary fluctuations.

Thurston County residents faced a shortage of their own shelves in 1918-1919. However, this deficiency is not directly or indirectly due to the flu. Instead, they are caused by wartime rationing. Sugar, wheat, and meat are the main deficiencies experienced by residents, and like their modern counterparts, residents use creativity to minimize disturbances from these deficiencies.

Local shops, such as Costco, have taken steps to reduce COVID-19 transmission, such as installing signs to push a distance of six feet or more. Photo credit: Holly Reed

Myrtle Boone was a district home demonstrator for Thurston County. Home Demonstration Clubs are supported by the USDA, the state agriculture department, and extension offices that are connected through state colleges and universities. During wars and pandemics simultaneously, demonstration clubs at home provided advice and information on topics such as gardening and food preparation and preservation. In the era before Google and YouTube, these clubs and the information they provided in local newspapers and leaflets was invaluable to families who were satisfied with the deficiencies. Boone encouraged local housewives in 1918 to replace potatoes from the Washington bumper potato plant as a substitute for wheat flour for bread.

Food Delivery

Crowded streets at local grocery stores have encouraged residents to order their groceries online for roadside pickup or home delivery. Area traders have also implemented a variety of methods to limit customer and employee exposure, from limiting the number of customers to floor marks that indicate a distance of six feet.

Roadside services and grocery delivery may seem like modern conveniences, but stores utilized this service in the early 1900s as well. Crabgrill Market, which was originally located on Fifth Avenue in downtown Olympia, advertises quality goods, including butter and canned food brought to the door of their customers. Nearby Reder & Phillips reminds customers that they keep everything “clean and healthy,” along with fast shipping.

Closed School

On March 16, 2020, Thurston County Overseer was temporarily closed Olympia, North Thurston, Tumwater, Yelm, and Rainier school, and after much deliberation Governor Inslee ordered all Washington schools closed for the remainder of the school year. Public gatherings have been banned, and services have been reduced to importance.

In October 1918, Dr. H.W. Partlow, local doctors, and local health officials ordered all schools closed, conveying orders from the state health council. “The only way [the Influenza epidemic] can be stopped is closing every place where people gather, said the health council. The second wave of flu in early 1919 resulted in the closure of theater, dance, and officials urging people to stay home from all meetings.

The ad running the 1918 newspaper, The Washington Standard, provides advice to customers on how to prevent flu. This ad recommends “nice warm clothes.” Photo courtesy: Library of Congress


As more information is available about the transmission and spread of COVID-19, public health officials have determined that, in addition to physical removal and hand washing, facial masks will be a useful tool to limit the spread of infection, especially where physical distancing is difficult.

Current information shows that fabric masks help limit the amount of air droplets, which can reduce the transmission of COVID-19 from people who have no symptoms – no symptoms but still shed virus particles – to unexposed individuals. Skilled sewers have received phone calls, sold cloth masks at low cost or given them free of charge to friends, neighbors, and community members through online Facebook groups.

Seattle police wear a 6-layer cotton mask sewn by members of the Red Cross at the Temple of Justice on the Capitol Campus. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives

The mask was pushed in 1918-1919 too. The city of Seattle sent an emergency call to the Thurston District Red Cross chapter in October 1918 for 10,000 flu masks. Local workers meet at the Temple of Justice on the capitol campus to sew a 6-layer cotton mask. Current knowledge suggests that masks may be limited and contain the spread of disease from infected individuals, rather than directly protecting the wearer of the mask from inhaling the virus itself.

In modern times commercial air, computers and the internet, 1918 might have looked like a million years ago. However, almost a century ago, residents of the Thurston area survived through a global epidemic. If history reminds us of something, people in Thurston County will come through this pandemic as a stronger community, strengthened by the ties that were forged during the pandemic, even when we physically distance ourselves.

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