The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Postman wearing a mask during the 1918 flu epidemic. NSHS RG2071.PHO-1

Nebraska’s last great epidemic was the Spanish influenza, commonly called flu, which hit the United States early in 1918. The scourge had greatly intensified by September and was at its worst during the fall months, throwing a damper on most social gatherings. Even World War I victory celebrations on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, were limited in some towns as the war against the flu continued.  

Symptoms of the disease included high fever, cough, dizziness, and profuse perspiration. Frequently bronchial pneumonia developed, with death following. In Omaha alone there were 974 deaths between October 5 and December 31 due to the flu.  

Life in Nebraska was severely disrupted during the height of the flu epidemic. As the disease spread, doctors and nurses were in short supply. By October the Nebraska State Board of Health had issued an order closing public meetings, schools, churches, theaters, and all types of entertainment. Mail carriers continued their rounds, but wore white face masks for protection. 

There were few holiday activities during the closing days of 1918. Most Christmas gatherings were canceled. Nebraska merchants tried various strategies to offset their losses from the slump in trade. For example, general store owner C. W. Moon of Shelby in Polk County offered “Free County Delivery Service” in order to “help during this present ‘flu’ epidemic.”    

“Flu Sunday,” December 8, 1918, in Shelby, Nebraska. Men wearing protective masks pose near Fred J. Strain’s furniture and undertaking business. NSHS RG2071.PHO-2

As the year ended, the epidemic appeared to be slowing under the strict statewide quarantine rules. Omaha authorities raised the lid to permit their citizens to celebrate the New Year’s holiday. By mid-January 1919, although national news stories indicated the epidemic still was claiming thousands of victims, in Nebraska the worst was over. A New Year’s greeting in the Shelby Sun on December 26, 1918, said:  

“The old year is almost gone. . . . It was ushered in by war, the most terrible in all history; it brought higher prices for everything; it brought short crops and a growing expense account and it brought the flu; but we have met all and conquered.” – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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