The Flu Pandemic of 1918
Red Cross workers make anti-influenza masks for soldiers, Boston, Massachusetts. (National Archives Identifier 45499341)
Before COVID-19, the most severe pandemic in recent history was the 1918 influenza virus, often called “the Spanish Flu.” The virus infected roughly 500 million people—one-third of the world’s population—and caused 50 million deaths worldwide (double the number of deaths in World War I). In the United States, a quarter of the population caught the virus, 675,000 died, and life expectancy dropped by 12 years. With no vaccine to protect against the virus, people were urged to isolate, quarantine, practice good personal hygiene, and limit social interaction.
Until February 2020, the 1918 epidemic was largely overlooked in the teaching of American history, despite the ample documentation at the National Archives and elsewhere of the disease and its devastation. The 100-year-old pictures from 1918 that just months ago seemed quaint and dated now seem oddly prescient. We make these records more widely available in hopes that they contain lessons about what to expect over the coming months and ideas about ways to avoid a repeat and prepare for what may follow.
A selection of photographs and documents from the National Archives' nationwide holdings tell the story of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
(Click image to view gallery)
Female clerks in New York City wear masks at work. (National Archives Identifier 45499337)
Department of the Navy: Precautions Against Influenza. (National Archives Identifier 6861947)
Traffic "cop" in New York City wearing gauze mask. (National Archives Identifier 45499301)
- Red Cross volunteer nurses in Eureka, CA
- Red Cross Women’s Motor Corps aids injured patients
- Red Cross workers in Seattle
- Street cleaner in mask
- Boston Red Cross workers making masks for soldiers
- Female elevator operator in New York City
- Eberts Field, Lonoke, AR: Convalescent influenza patients in hospital overflow space
- Emergency hospital, Brookline, MA, to care for influenza cases
- Fighting influenza in Seattle: Flu serum injection
- A nurse wearing a mask fills water from a pitcher
- Mother and daughter work on a quilt for soldiers
- Red Cross Motor Corps on duty
- San Francisco police court meets in open air for influenza prevention
Dr. Jeremy Brown, Director of Emergency Care Research, National Institutes of Health, spoke about his book Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2019.
Nurses make bandages for flu epidemic (stock newsreel footage from CBS)
Blogs and Social Media Posts
Forward with Roosevelt: One of the Millions: FDR and the Flu Pandemic of 1918–1920
Pieces of History: Influenza Epidemic 1918—“Wear a mask and save your life”
Pieces of History: Gesundheit!
Unwritten Record: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic
Today's Document: Precautions Against Influenza
Tumblr: 1918 to COVID-19
Additional primary sources and educational resources from DocsTeach
At the Presidential Libraries
Truman Library: Letter from Harry to Bess, referencing the influenza epidemic, and expressing relief that Bess has recovered from it.
Ford Library: President Asks Congress for $135 Million for Swine Flu VaccineFord Library: Fact Sheet on Swine Influenza Immunization Program
George W. Bush Library: Pandemic Flu: Preparing and Protecting against Avian Influenza
Barack Obama Library: Declaration of Nat’l Emergency - 2009 H1N1 Influenza Pandemic
Barack Obama Library: Press Briefing On Swine Influenza
Posts Related to COVID-19
National Archives News: National Personnel Records Center Continues Serving Veterans During COVID-19 Pandemic
National Archives News: National Archives Donates Protective Gear for COVID-19 Response
Office of the Federal Register: COVID-19 Procedures
Press Release: Information on NHPRC and COVID-19