In Seattle, 1918 Armistice Day led to celebrations — and a surge of flu


While Seattle was largely mask-compliant – unlike San Francisco, where there were organized anti-masking efforts – residents began to lose patience with the uncomfortable face coverings. They were heavy, four- and six-ply cotton masks that should be worn in public at all times. On November 8, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that many shipyard workers were “having difficulty completing the state health department’s mandate to wear masks.” Workers complained that the masks were difficult to find despite the thousands of face coverings provided by Red Cross volunteers.

Frustrated authorities began to crack down on so-called “mask refusers”. A federal draft committee that used city facilities was closed because workers there refused to wear masks. And for the first time, police issued an arrest warrant for a NS Andrews, a driver for a jitney service at the shipyard, who was fined for not wearing his face covering and skipping his court date. It was the first state arrest warrant for such a violation. The fine: $ 25, which is roughly $ 450 today.

A letter sent to the PI by an Army corporal stationed in New Jersey ridiculed the city for its anti-flu efforts, particularly the masking of its citizens. The “Queen City” exchanged her crown for a mask. … The cities in the east have been hit much harder than Seattle, but “business as usual” is still their slogan. There was no sign of hysteria and the jazz bands kept playing happily. … Future suffragettes in the full beauty of youth, untouched by time or mask, they went their way … while in Seattle an outsider would feel transported to Turkey. “

But one major event caused Seattle to throw caution – at least what was left of it – to the wind. In the early hours of November 11th, news came of the city’s armistice – the end of the First World War. The Seattle Star stormed the streets with news: The war was over! At 2:30 a.m. on Monday the 11th, the revelers take to the streets.

“Chaos”, reported the newspaper, “prevailed”.

As dawn came, the solemn dynamism picked up as people woke to the news and the shouting. Seattle supporters denied public gatherings threw away their tracks – and masks – with the thrill of victory.

The dawning day was dry and “sunny”, and an unprecedented “ecstasy” spread in the streets, as a newspaper reported. “Through a kind of spontaneous burning of the heart and soul,” wrote the Seattle Times, “it grew from nowhere to cheering thousands of protesters and screeching hundreds of cars; in waving flags, patriotic music, confetti, singing girls and carriages that tell the deceased, unmistakable emperor that he is a good place. “

About 5,000 cadets from the quarantined University of Washington Naval and Aviation School flocked to the streets with their band and marched downtown along Eastlake. Steam whistles, horns, sirens and explosions filled the air. The UW bells played “Bow Down to Washington”, the school’s battle song. Mayor Ole Hanson, who was informed of the hustle and bustle, declared: “The lid is off!” And joined the masses. Governor Ernest Lister declared a public holiday, so newly opened shops and offices closed and sent their employees to the festive hordes.

When the cadets swarmed in from the university district, they merged in the city center with around 15,000 shipyard workers who came from today’s SoDo. “This morning at 10 am,” The Times reported, “the city was delirious with joy and Second Avenue was a howling, screeching mess.” The newspaper called it “the largest demonstration in the history of the city.”

Official medical advice still warned of crowds and the mandate to wear masks remained. But that was all over. “Even flu masks were forgotten,” The Times said, “except that they were used in place of handkerchiefs and waved out of windows and doors by cheering employees and other operators who did not join the parade.”

In newspaper editions of November 11, it was stated that the shutdown mandates would be lifted the next day. The city’s health officer, Dr. JS McBride, however, urged the city to keep the mask mandate. And for good reason: the anti-pandemic efforts worked. Deaths and new cases fell dramatically in the five weeks of masks, restrictions, and social distancing. To ease the matter, McBride said, “We are warning people that not all danger is over and if the gauze mask layout is not followed to the letter, the ban must be reinstated. … Although the theaters are open, overcrowding will not be tolerated. People mustn’t lose their heads. “

Nevertheless, on November 12, despite McBride’s warnings, the city lifted its restrictions; Officials claimed it was unenforceable. Mayor Hansen, pressured by the business community to return to normal, insisted that Seattle do the same, and an unhappy McBride called. The PI wrote: “The city hopes never again to hear the word influenza and the order to put on a face apron.”

The lifting of the ban, The Times reported, was “a double reason to celebrate.” As historian Nancy Rockafellar wrote, “Seattle was able to equate defeating the Huns with defeating the flu.”

Feeling liberated, residents flocked to the theaters and elevated gatherings. “Seattle, now without a muzzle, put on resting, tired feet in the cinema during the day,” observed the PI. The theaters were overcrowded, as were the shops, which again had full hours. Public transport was full and “no mask was in sight,” reported the PI on November 13th. The schools were supposed to reopen the next day.

With the upcoming holidays, the festivities were far from over.

In the days following the armistice, the citizens of Seattle seized their own sense of liberation. In the midst of the euphoria, McBride must have been discouraged. He had steered Seattle through the start of an unprecedented pandemic – one complicated by an unknown disease and the demands of war with a pathetically understaffed office. In a December 1918 profile in the Times, the newspaper wrote that McBride was “talked about and verbally abused, praised and reprimanded, helped and disabled, and he and his clerks worked from early morning to late at night – all because of the flu” . . “He closed the city” tightly like a jug. Then came freedom. “

Oh freedom. It came at a price. Predictably, the truce was followed by a second surge in the disease. One month after the war ended, the death toll peaked. Cases and deaths lasted until 1919. More than 1,000 apartments have been quarantined. Half of the school children were kept at home by anxious parents even though schools reopened. The so-called Spanish flu lasted until spring and dashed Seattle’s hopes for a second Stanley Cup by making players and coaches sick.

The disease slowly disappeared. In terms of death rates (measured in deaths per 100,000), Seattle did much better than San Francisco, eastern cities like Boston and Philadelphia, and regional neighbors like Spokane and Portland. Seattle’s “hysterics,” as critics called its health regulations, which required distancing and masking, had saved lives. If these measures had continued after the November 11th armistice, many more might have survived.

The First World War was not the “war to end all wars”. And the 1918 flu, which eventually killed nearly 700,000 Americans and millions more around the world, wasn’t the last pandemic. November 11th is a good time to remember the joy and tragedy of 1918 – and its still-ringing teachings.