Memories of the Mid-Century Flu Outbreak: PT II

health colds vintage illustration man sneezing

In the cold winter of 1957, my Mother came down with a nasty case of the Asiatic flu that was spreading through the country.

Just like today, the flu was on the march and health authorities everywhere were girding for battle against an epidemic.

vintage cartoon warning  flu epidemic 1918

My harried father called for reinforcements enlisting the help of my grandmother Nana Sadie who would be deployed to the suburbs from Manhattan. A decorated Veteran of the Flu Epidemic of 1918, she was armed to battle the enemy the best way she knew how, arriving loaded down with shopping bags filled with cans of disinfectants and a cache of secret ingredients for her chicken soup.

Air Defense

vintage ads health listerine lysol germs

 Immediately upon landing the following morning, Nana wasted no time. She would take the offensive with the pre-emptive striking power of Lysol, Lestoil and Listerine, to immobilize and incapacitate any rogue germs.

Boots on the ground, mink hat still on her head, Nana Sadie had us all gargling with Listerine. The first line of infiltration was the throat. You had to strike at throat infections before the germs got a foothold.

The warning signal- a tickle in the throat- nature’s way of saying “Look Out- Danger Ahead: the bacteria is getting the upper hand! The throat is an open door for infection laying out a welcome mat for all kinds of germs” warned the Listerine ads ominously

The next engagement was a full frontal attack on dirt. Every counter, every surface in the house was scoured and sanitized.

Operation: Air Borne.  

health flu 1918 handkerchief

 Nana was certain the air was filled with dust and germs which could then be inhaled. The menacing fact about this potent flu virus was that when scattered by an infected sneeze, or a soiled hanky, it could continue to live in household dust and infect the whole family with the flu even six weeks later.

As Nana explained it, “spittle contains many little disease germs and when the spittle dries these little germs are set free, caught by the wind and begin to fly about”.

Therefore, reinforcements of Kleenex were constantly being supplied to the front lines.

Kleenex tissue ad Little Lulu

Tucked into her sleeve, or balled up in her pocket, Nana never went anywhere without a tissue at the ready, her first line of defense against deadly germs.

To her, the invention of Kleenex was a modern miracle of science, rivaling sulpha drugs and penicillin in saving mankind. With the simple toss of a disposable Kleenex into a waste basket, you were wiping out thousands of dangerous enemies, and saving countless lives.

When the miracle that was Kleenex first appeared, even the box itself was proclaimed a marvel of ingenuity, and modern design, “….. cleverly made to hand out automatically through a narrow slit, two tissues at a time ( the correct number for a treatment)”.

 1918 Flu Epidemic

health flu epidemic 1918 winter

As a veteran of the first and worst flu epidemic every, old fears and suspicion born of that war, had scarred Nana Sadie for life.

The public, in 1918 was petrified of the Flu.

It was a panicky time, when everyone and everything became suspect of contamination, mirroring the Red Scare which reached near hysteria that very year. Provoked by a fear that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent – a revolution that would destroy the American way of Life, ordinary people became suspect of being Anarchists and Communists.

So it was with the Influenza, when even everyday items such as handkerchiefs came under scrutiny and attack.

health flu epidemic 1918 posters

Those lovely embroidered, heirloom hankies that every proper lady, gentleman and well brought up child always carried- might well be aiding and abetting unseen armies of influenza germs, rendering your dainty, lace trimmed hanky as dangerous as any incendiary device. Carelessness on your part, and suddenly your monogrammed handkerchief, harboring germs, could be turned into a weapon of bio-terrorism, threatening you and your terror-stricken neighbors with the dread menace of infection.

Fear ran so deep that handkerchiefs were stigmatized as dangerous transmitters of the flu, and people frantically resorted to using pieces of linen in their stead, which were then subsequently burned.

health handkerchief vintage  childrens book illustration 1950s

Although hankies eventually came back into favor, and Nana, like my mother, always carried an ironed and neatly folded hanky in her pocketbook, she would never dream of blowing her nose in one. Dabbing an eye at a three hanky movie maybe, but generally handkerchiefs were rendered inoperable.

And if health wasn’t an incentive, vanity was. Kleenex promised the flapper it would  keep her girlish figure. “Now I’m streamlined,’ boasted one young modern. “Carrying four or five hankies in my pocket during colds made my figure bumpy in the wrong places! Now I carry Kleenex and I’m in good shape again!”

Air Control

vintage childrens schoolbook illustration health fresh air

As head of tactical air control, Nana deployed the aerosol Lysol to fumigate the house of any biological agent, followed by the immediate opening up all the windows to let in plenty of frigid fresh air.

Sunshine and fresh air were the best deterrents to all illness, Nana informed us.

Sick people she was convinced, needed air support, the more fresh air they get, the quicker they were likely to heal. But only if you avoided drafts at all costs. How you could  distinguish between blasts of healthful, fresh Arctic air and dangerous drafts was beyond me. And don’t even think of raising the thermostat. Overheated homes were a recruitment center for pneumonia and TB.

Nana had definite ideas how the body worked and how it could be healed.

The open windows theory, heavily promoted in previous decades, went that people who breathe the same stale air over and over run the risk of catching some dreadful disease, for along with the air, the lungs blow out tiny germs of sickness. These are too small to be seen and if there were plenty of fresh air in the room, they would rise up to the ceiling, float out the windows, be caught by the wind and carried high in the air where the hot sun would soon kill them.

If these germs can’t get out of the room they are apt to be drawn into the lungs of any person who isn’t well and there they are sure to grow and make that person very ill.

Her other strategy was a series of incendiary attacks. She would fight fire with fire.

Any remedy that made you perspire was good. You couldn’t possibly get well “until you worked up a good shvitz”, she believed, so a vaporizer was stationed next to Mom’s head, so hot it made the wallpaper perspire. Great puffs of mushrooming steam clouded the room so Mom couldn’t even be seen through the haze

Fowl Ball

health cold chicken soup advertising

Jewish Penicillin

By themselves, these methods did not seem sufficient.

We were poised to unleash a powerful weapon to win the cold war- Jewish Penicillin. Chicken soup, clear, sparkling, golden-colored, was Nana’s secret weapon. Antihistamine, decongestant, expectorant all in one, the golden broth would blast the virus to smithereens, the accompanying Matzo balls, delivering the 1-2 punch.

Copyright (©) 2013 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: The Cold Wars: Nothing to Sneeze At « Envisioning The American Dream

  2. Pingback: Memories of the Mid-Century Flu Outbreak « Envisioning The American Dream

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