Seattle Now & Then: The influenza pandemic, 1918

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: Seattle bon vivant and amateur photographer Max Loudon took this photo featuring his beloved Indian Motorcycle during the 1918 pandemic. His sister Grace Loudon McAdams, second from the right, perches side saddle amidst masked friends on a Third Avenue sidewalk half a block south of Washington Street. (Paul Dorpat collection)
NOW: A lone Seattleite walks her dog along a nearly-deserted Third Avenue. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on April 2, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on April 5, 2020)

A deadly flu kept Seattle indoors and in masks in 1918
By Jean Sherrard

“I had a little bird and its name was Enza.
I opened the window and in-flew-Enza.”

In the fall of 1918, this was not just a nursery rhyme. The worldwide influenza pandemic was quite real – and lethal.

It blew into Washington state on a perfect storm. Percolating in the wet, filthy trenches of World War 1, this mutated H1N1 strain infected weary soldiers, and in the war’s waning months, it circled the globe. At U.S. military bases, deaths from pneumonia multiplied, alarmingly within days, even hours, of the onset of symptoms. Unlike past flus, the most vulnerable were young and healthy.

In mid-September, Camp (now Fort) Lewis and Bremerton’s naval facilities reported their first cases of flu. So on Oct. 5, Seattle’s mayor, Ole Hanson, and commissioner of health, Dr. J. S. McBride, ordered the immediate closure of schools, churches, theaters, dance halls and “every place of indoor public assemblage … to check the spread of disease.”

Frank Cooper, school superintendent, pronounced the closures “hysterical” and “senseless,” while children applauded the unexpected vacation. Outside City Hall, a young boy demanded of Hanson, “Are you the guy that closed the schools?” Hanson admitted that he was. “Well,” said the lad, “I’m for you!”

To many, the closures seemed draconian. Deprived of entertainment, recreation and indoor religion (although St. James Cathedral and First Presbyterian Church held open-air services throughout rainy October), Seattleites derided the closures. “An awful day for husbands and wives,” the Post-Intelligencer huffed. “Both had to either remain at home or walk the streets.”

Druggists peddled a plethora of snake-oil cures, from Coronoleum and Septol Spray to Bark-la’s Gargle and Gude’s Pepto-Mangan (“the Red Blood Builder”).

The Red Cross distributed 250,000 six-ply linen masks, and public transit became off-limits to the open-faced. (“Wear the mask or walk,” proclaimed Hanson.) Taking advantage of the anonymity, a few masked crooks staged stickups and burglaries.

As contagion swelled, public complaints evaporated as newspapers listed sobering daily death tolls of men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

On Nov. 11, Armistice Day, “perfectly sunny weather” was forecast. After five weeks of gloom and isolation, Seattle was primed for a celebration. “In [an] ecstasy of joy at ending the world’s worst war,” reported The Seattle Times, “it grew from nothing into cheering thousands.” Masks were shucked and “instead of handkerchiefs … waved from windows and doorways by cheering spectators.”

The next day, the closures were revoked. “All places of public assembly” reopened, though masks were still de rigueur.

Before the virus ran its course in 1919, a third of the world’s population had been infected, resulting in 50-100 million deaths, including nearly 5,000 Washingtonians.

By springtime, it could be said, out flew Enza.


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Jean, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

And there’s more!

THEN: Max Loudon’s 2nd photo of his motorcycle posers unmasked!

Also below is an alternate “Now & Then” photo pair on the same topic. Enjoy!

THEN: On Oct 29, 1918, the noon shift of Police Chief J.F. Warren’s “Influenza Squad” emerges from police headquarters in the Public Safety Building (now the Yesler Building), in this easterly view up Terrace Street. The force was charged with cracking down on public spitting (a $5 fine), enforcing the wearing of masks and dispersing crowds. Warren himself was infected early on but recovered. (Paul Dorpat collection)
NOW: Two mask-free Seattleites bravely cross the intersection of Terrace Street and Yesler Way. (Jean Sherrard)

March 25, 2007, Seattle Times, Paul Dorpat’s “Now & Then” column about the 1918 flu.






4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The influenza pandemic, 1918”

  1. Oh my heavens… look at that vintage V-twin. That’s a Powerplus… Model N, isn’t it? That is one gorgeous machine. I believe those could go modern freeway speeds.

  2. We have a 1919 Indian Scout to lend for a photo.And we know a local all women motorcycle club that we think will welcome having there photo taken for the now part
    Tom S from the Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling

    1. What a great idea, Tom! Let’s wait for a bit and make a special trip later this summer.

      1. Jean
        Sure the 1919 Indian scout is one year newer and not quite the same. It was in Seattle since then and the original owner was a well respected photo journalist.
        Do you still have my cell number? The old home number is not working now. ALSO the Renton women’s M/C club meetings were at a BBQ restaurant on First Ave South Slims last chance.It’s not open now till the pandemic clears up a little more.
        Tom S.

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