“Arrest all spitters!” A look at how Michigan newspapers covered the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak

Seattle policemen wearing protective gauze face masks during influenza epidemic of 1918 which claimed millions of lives worldwide (Photo by Time Life Pictures/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

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Schools and businesses closed to prevent the spread of the diseases. Sporting events canceled. The government mandating the wearing of masks in enclosed public places.

That was life during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. The outbreak peaked in October 1918, and by the time it was eradicated, it had sickened 500 million people worldwide and killed 50 million, including about 650,000 in the United States. In Michigan, the death toll was more than 15,000 – the equivalent of about 50,000 people today.

By comparison, at last count, the COVID-19 outbreak has taken more than 100,000 American lives, including about 5,300 people in Michigan.

To see what life was like during the 1918 outbreak, we went back and looked at some old Michigan newspapers. As you’ll see, the similarities to today’s situation are pretty striking.

From the Port-Huron Times Herald of Oct. 22, 1918, announcing a shutdown of the city:

Also from the Times-Herald, an editorial urging that anyone found spitting should be arrested. “They are not fit to be at large.”

In Howell, the schools were only closed for a couple of weeks:

From the Lansing State Journal:

This story in the Port Huron Times-Herald said that all store clerks were required to wear masks, along with anyone coming over from Canada. It spelled out a lot of other safety rules that look pretty familiar.

There was no hydroxychloroquine back then, but when it came to miracle cures for the Spanish flu, there were plenty of them. Here are just a few of the products that were pitched:

The Michigan-Michigan State football game in October 1918 was called off, although MSU had a different name back then (the Michigan Aggies):

When the pandemic started to subside, the Temple Theatre in Howell reopened its doors and urged patrons to come. It even added this line: “Throw care to the winds – go!”

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About The Livingston Post 1886 Articles
The Livingston Post is the only locally owned, all-digital information and opinion site in Livingston County, Mich. It was launched by award-winning journalists who were laid off from the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus by Gannett Co. Inc. in 2009.

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