1918 Influenza

Press Tribune, Oct. 22, 1918

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic to sweep the globe. In 1918, the world also faced a harrowing pandemic.

In the fall of 1918, as the First World War was coming to a close, an influenza was starting to spread. For 18 months the virus infected and killed tens of millions people around the world, many of them young and healthy adults.

Why “Spanish Flu”?

Wartime censorship initially minimized the outbreak of the illness to prevent panic. But reports from Spain, a neutral country, detailed the King’s illness, giving the virus the nickname “Spanish Flu.”

Despite the nickname “Spanish Flu,” the virus - a strain of H1N1 - most likely emerged in Kansas. Young recruits from local farms reporting to army camps at Fort Riley and Camp Funston were the likely start of the spread.

By fall of 1918, the scale of the pandemic had exploded. The mass movement of people during the wartime spread the virus through military camps and hospitals. As the War ended, troops returned home, fearful of bringing the virus home to uninfected communities.

Placer Herald, October 26, 1918


Like today, many cities imposed curfews and quarantines, banned public gatherings, and closed schools, libraries, and churches.

The 1918 influenza was devastating. Doctors, nurses, and public services were already strained due to the war effort. While doctors were able to identify the presence of a new illness, there were no contemporary medical treatments to cure the infection. However, healthcare workers understood how the virus spread and sanitization and prevention were emphasized.

Placer Herald November 16, 1918

The Face Mask

The face mask became a common sight across the country. In Auburn, City Ordinance No. 182 was passed on November 7, 1918 requiring all individuals in public to wear a mask over their mouth and face or they may be arrested.

Photo Courtesy of Placer County Museum Collection, 1918

By the summer of 1919, despite the lack of antiviral medications and vaccines, the pandemic ended. We would face other pandemics in 1957, 1968, and even the return of an H1N1 virus in 2009. But, all did come to an end. COVID-19, too will run its course and become a part of our history. And as we live through this period, we are actively collecting the ephemeral items and taking photographs to record this historic event.

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