As U.S. women were struggling toward the vote, and World War I was nearing its end, an influenza pandemic broke out in 1918. The disease had hit earlier in the year and then passed, but in the fall, a more virulent strain brought an epidemic to New York City for about two months. Much of the reporting by the New-York Tribune in that period sounds familiar, while other details highlight differences due to the passage of time.
September 18: The city’s Board of Health made influenza and pneumonia “reportable” by doctors, as cases were found on incoming ships. Thousands of cases had occurred in Boston.
September 29: Influenza was on the increase in U.S. military camps, limiting the number of soldiers who could be sent overseas to the war. New York City’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Royal C. Copeland, advised against overcrowding on subways to prevent transmission of disease. The city so far had 1360 cases reported. Congress appropriated $1,000,000 to fight the flu.
October 5: In Washington DC, the Surgeon General said all communities “stricken with influenza” should close their churches, schools and theaters.
New York City schools remained open as there were few cases in the schools, which were considered the safest places for children to be. The opening and closing times of different types of businesses (shops, wholesalers, offices, textile manufacturers, non-textile manufacturers) were staggered, in order to lessen crowding on subways and streetcars.
In 24 hours, 108 men were fined for spitting in the street. Twenty soda fountain proprietors were fined for failing to wash glasses between use by customers.
October 17: Five thousand new cases were reported in NYC in one day, along with 680 deaths. Across the country, an estimated 180,000 people were thrown out of work by the closing of theaters.
October 22: Copeland declared that influenza was “burning out” in the city, as the number of new cases decreased. Some landlords had to be forced to supply heat in their buildings, with lack of heat blamed for influenza in tenements. Prosecution was underway for people who were profiteering in funerals and drugs. The Academy of Medicine proposed making it a misdemeanor to cough or sneeze in a public place without covering the mouth and nose.
October 29: The epidemic appeared to be waning across most of the nation. Motion picture theaters were expected to reopen within the week.
October 30: Despite the influenza, suffragists reported they had registered 600,000 women voters upstate and 400,000 in New York City for the first national election to take place since the state approved its woman suffrage referendum the year before.
November 7: Copeland sought foster parents for 400 children orphaned by the epidemic. The number of daily influenza cases continued to drop.
November 8: City residents were advised to use coal sparingly, as national production of anthracite was down 500,000 tons due to the epidemic. To prevent tuberculosis and nervous disorders in those recovering from the influenza, Copeland planned to send nurses into the homes of convalescents to supply advice.
November 12: Only 108 new cases were reported in 24 hours. The Health Department took a holiday to celebrate the end of the war.
November 13: Dry goods manufacturers and the typesetters union petitioned for an end to staggered opening times now that the epidemic was over.