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Staff File Photo By Erin O. Smith / Clippings from local newspapers about the Spanish flu of 1918.

For answers to frequently asked questions about the coronavirus, click here

 

Social distancing was not a phrase Chattanoogans were using in October 1918, but it was going on anyway.

An outbreak of Spanish influenza had spread across the United States and was sickening and killing people in numbers Americans hadn't experienced before.

As in 2020, with the coronavirus, public and private officials were forced to make closing, postponing and canceling decisions they didn't want to make but understood would be prudent to slow the spread of the illness.

In other words, we've been here before as a nation. And it's remarkable, as editions of the Chattanooga Daily Times from October 1918 show us, how some of the same things said and done then are being said and done today. Other illustrations from back in the day tell us how far we've come.

Early in the month, on Oct. 4, were the ominous words that "further spread of Spanish influenza over the country and in army camps with an increasing death rate was indicated today."

By Oct. 10, the Chattanooga health department had issued a decree forbidding social gatherings. Schools, church services and public gatherings of any kind had been suspended. Theaters and poolrooms were closed. Even a small card party, the newspaper warned, would be in violation of the order.

However, the city wasn't planning to go as far as Huntsville, Alabama, which had banned kissing — public and private.

Chattanooga doctors, the newspaper said, "frankly assert that they regard such a ban as worse than useless, in view of the fact that people who don't want to kiss won't kiss anyway, while those who do want to won't let such a little thing as death or influenza influence their actions."

Two days later, on Oct. 12, a private employer, Brock Candy Co., told its workers to remain home that day, a Saturday, and all the following week.

"You realize that this country is going through conditions different to anything ever witnessed," said company President W.E. Brock, "and for that reason we must all work for the interest of each other, and for the good of the common cause."

Meanwhile, a Bradley County physician said common sense should prevail.

"I am in sympathy with all quarantine measure," he said, "but I believe if city folks stay home as much as possible and take precautionary measures recommended by their physicians, they will be well off, if not more secure, than their country cousins."

Advice from the United States Public Health Service was similar: Keep out of crowds as much as possible, cover up each cough and sneeze, do not spit on the floor or sidewalk, stop the common drinking cup and roller towel in public places, go to bed if you think you have the flu and send for the doctor. Follow your doctor's advice, and obey state and local health officers.

By the middle of the month, the social distancing of its day was having effects even as it was said the flu had peaked.

No police court had been held since the previous week, and arrests were down. The local water company said it would not cut off the water supply of families suffering from the flu and who could not come in and pay their bills.

However, Chattanoogans parched for another liquid heard city health authorities had received a supply of whisky, so some arrived at the doorstep of officials "with all kinds of excuses" that they should be given alcohol, including with physician's prescriptions "insisting that their families were influenza sufferers and that the whisky was absolutely necessary." All were told the report was a hoax.

Although the term Chattanooga Way wouldn't be used for another 80 or so years, what was called "the Chattanooga spirit" was said to be in force with an Oct. 17 newspaper report that automobile owners in the city were responding favorably to an appeal by the Chattanooga Automobile Club for the transportation of doctors — many from Camp Greenleaf (located in Chickamauga Battlefield) — to the homes of sick patients.

As to the city's black population, a black doctor, J.C. Tadley, surmised that "it seems the colored people are able to throw off the disease better than the white and the vast majority of cases were very light, being not much worse than ... an ordinary bad cold."

Not surprisingly, according to an Oct. 22 report, one of the items in short supply around the country was coffins. Officials of the Tennessee Coffin and Casket Co. in Chattanooga called the situation "something appalling." To fill the need, they said, employees would stop working on novelty cedar goods, have their schedules rearranged and make more coffins.

As the month wound down, reports said the order barring public gatherings would be lifted no sooner than Oct. 28 but maybe later.

And as the health of Chattanoogans stabilized, the newspaper printed advice from the U.S. Public Health Service for staying well. Although people suggested "the sprinkling of a little sulphur in each shoe every morning" or examining all peppers and tobacco from the "Orient," where the flu was thought to have started, the agency said "the chief reliance must be on medical attention, good nursing, fresh air, nutritious food, plenty of water and cheerful surroundings."

Then as now, people understood that we'll get through this.

 

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