Local History: Spanish Flu from Downton Abbey to Essex County

A look back to the onset of Spanish flu in 1918-1919 and its impact on South Orange and the surrounding area.

'I had a little bird,

Its name was Enza.

I opened the window,

And in-flu-enza.'

— Jump Rope rhyme popular in 1918 and 1919.

In 1918, residents of South Orange and Maplewood might turn to the local weekly newspaper, The Home News, for an update on local events. The usual headline, “What Maplewood – South Orange Folks are Doing; Personal Notes of Those You Know,” was followed by reports of graduations and “bridal teas.” The eight-page weekly filled its pages with items of local interest, short articles that jostled for space with War Bond ads.

However, as Downton Abbey viewers know, a global 'flu epidemic loomed. On the fictional series, the disease claimed a number of victims. Likewise, South Orange and Maplewood were impacted, as well.

Locals may have been alarmed to read the headline of Oct. 18, 1918. “South Orange District Schools Close; Village Churches Discontinue Services for Period of Epidemic.” Close to home, the influenza epidemic had struck.

The “Spanish flu” infected New Jersey in late summer and fall of 1918, eventually spreading around much of the world. Fort Dix, NJ, was struck hard by the disease, and 21-year-old Harry Schectman, newly drafted from Williams College, was one of the first New Jersey victims. By August, 9,313 new cases were reported, and by Sept. 28, 31,000 New Jersey residents had been stricken. 

In South Orange, schools were closed for two weeks, and churches “until further notice.” Soda fountains and saloons were ordered to stop selling drinks “over the counter,” and dispense only bottled goods. The exception to the ruling was when a meal was served. However, the Board of Health was firm: “A sandwich is not a meal,” ruled that body. “This refers to the club sandwich as well as the ordinary or common variety.” The prohibition was intended to thwart saloonkeepers from including a cheap meal in the price of a drink and skirting the new rules. 

Nearby, in Newark, the mayor reported some 11,000 had been stricken with the flu.  The city’s chief health officer, Dr. Charles Craster, disputed his figures, counting double that number. He designated the City Hospital for those who needed quarantine. He also worked on establishing a hospital in the Hahne and Staff building with the capacity for treating 750 people. Sadly, the hospital was completed too late to serve the ill; it quickly became a home for newly-orphaned Newark children.

In comparison, South Orange, which included much of Maplewood, fared well. Dr. A. C. Benedict, Village Physician, reported about 100 cases of the flu. “Even the influenza cases we have see most of them progressing satisfactorily. Considering the severity of the epidemic in other nearby municipalities, South Orange is very fortunate and we intend to continue taking every precaution necessary to prevent conditions growing worse. “

The epidemic killed more Americans than World War I, and its origins and treatment were largely a matter of guesswork. The Red Cross, Post Office and Federal Railroad administration produced instructive posters. Even the Colgate company placed ads detailing 12 steps to prevent influenza. Among the recommendations: chew food carefully and avoid tight clothes and shoes. Locally, The Home News advised readers to keep the body strong, which “can be done by having a proper proportion of work, play, and rest” and by drinking milk. A nearby advertisement warned readers “Don’t Telephone Unless It Is Absolutely Necessary,” as a way to prevent the spread of illness.

The 1918 flu strain passed quickly through our area; by the end of November, newly-reported cases were an exception. Schools and churches reopened, and articles about the epidemic were moved to pages 3 and 4 of the newspaper.

Health care has come a long way since the 1918 epidemic, and post-World War I research provided us with greater understanding of illness and antibiotic remedies. During the epidemic, the local Health Department recommended this: “Spend some time out of doors each day, walk to work if at all practicable.” Perhaps it’s time to go outside.


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