The First Quarantine
by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
On the morning of October 15, 1918, Elmira Free Academy freshman Clara Gilbert was on her way to school with friends when they were stopped by a neighbor. “Girls, there’s no school on account of influenza,” he told them. As she wrote in her diary later that night, she was so happy she could have hugged him. She would soon change her mind. “Jiminy, I’d rather go to school and have parties than stay home,” she wrote on the 18th. By the times the schools opened again on November 3rd, it was a relief to go back.
|Clara Gilbert, student & diarist
In the autumn of 1918, Spanish Flu was ravaging the nation. Over one quarter of the population fell ill and approximately 600,000 Americans died. Despite the alarming numbers, there was no nationwide, or even statewide, plan to deal with the crisis. It was up to each community to decide what, if any, precautions they wanted to take.
On October 15th, Elmira made the decision to shut down schools, theaters, churches, pool halls, bowling alleys, libraries, and art galleries. There would be no club meetings, dances, public funerals, or other large gatherings. The street cars could run, but they would have to be thoroughly cleaned daily and keep the windows open to allow for increased ventilation. All big sales at area stores were to be cancelled, but shops remained open. So too did factories and the railroads, although employees were told not to come in if sick. Surrounding towns and villages shut down schools and churches too. Horseheads did it first on October 10th with Southport following on the 15th, and Wellsburg on the 16th.
|Elmira Herald, October 15, 1918
Life under influenza was not exactly social distancing. Today across the state, all non-essential businesses are shut down and people are being encouraged to stay at home. In 1918, students and people put out of work by the quarantine were encouraged to volunteer to bring in the potato harvest on area farms. At least 10 of them were known to have done so. The mayor urged citizens not to slack off on the purchase of war bonds and boy scouts continued to sell them door to door. Clara Glibert fell sick on October 21. That same day, her little sister had two school friends over.
Despite the lack of prohibitions on public interactions, the quarantine was no picnic. Stuck in my home, I can stay entertained with Netflix and the internet, but Elmirans in 1918 didn’t have any of that. With TV not yet invented and the theaters and libraries closed, students stuck at home were bored out of their minds. Clara spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and making paper dolls.
A number of area churches and synagogues have started streaming their services on-line. In 1918, the newspapers published the sermons in the Sunday morning papers. Although the churches were closed to the public, Catholic priests were still allowed in to perform the mass to an empty church. Congregants were encouraged to pray along at home at the usual time.
The city-wide quarantine ended on November 3, 1918 with much fanfare. In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have. At the height of the quarantine, there were 60 new cases in the city a day with between 6 and 10 daily deaths. On the day it was lifted, there were “only” 28 new cases. The city's two hospitals were still full, as was the temporary hospital at the Gotham Hotel. People continued to fall sick in the city well into the start of the next year.
|Majestic Theater ad, November 2, 1918
There were 3,549 confirmed cases of Spanish flu in the city with an untold number cases inaccurately reported as pneumonia or polio. At least 150 Elmirans died of it or related complications. Could the spread have been slowed and those deaths prevented if health officials had enacted more stringent quarantine measures for longer? It’s impossible to say but, in the current crisis, we do know that social distancing will help to ease the strain on the health care system and save lives. Check out our other blog posts Spanish Flu and Flu Season for more information about the 1918 flu epidemic while you do your part to help flatten the curve. Stay healthy, stay safe, and we’ll see each other again.