Kitty Gamble

Writing and historical nerdery

Life after the war: Spanish Flu

Oh, the Spanish ‘flu. I hardly have to give a detailed description of it, I should think. Wikipedia says it was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history – and claims it killed 3-5% of the world’s population.

Terrifying. But what was even scarier was that it was coming on the back of World War One. Or, rather, at the same time. The first wave happened early in 1918, and the second more deadly wave peaked (in the UK at least) in November 1918. It also killed a surprising amount of young people – unusual for a pandemic, when it’s usually the very young or old that die. The Spanish flu hit predominately young people, though – and apparently, modern science seems to think it was because of what is called a cytokine storm, which is very interesting.

But back to my research. By the time my newspaper clippings (all from December 1918, when my story is set) come in, the second wave was almost over. People were still recovering, though. I have lots of images in this one – articles and advertisements. I’m including both for context. As with the last post, they all come from the Daily News, and the ActivePaper archive.

On the 4th December, there was a notice on how to avoid infection:


You can sense the desperation, the horror. There are lots of little stories like that of William Bromley. It must have been terrifying to think that your family and friends who survived the horrors of the war could be struck down by this disease.

Advertising back then, just as it does now, preys on those fears. Although it’s hard to say whether or not it’s my modern cynicism bleeding through. The following advertisement appeared in the same edition:


I couldn’t actually decide whether this is sincere or not at first. Lots of advertisements – not just for medicines – mention that there is a shortage, don’t worry, just keep persisting and we will produce as much as we can. Rationing was still in effect (and my next blog post will be on that, because it’s hard to find information about rationing in WW1), and the bottle point would be a material one. But… to a modern eye it just looks like scaremongering. Every sick person NEEDS Bovril! It’s an emergency! Maybe I’m being too hard on 1918 Bovril marketing team. Maybe they were genuinely worried. And with rationing, Bovril probably was a good way to build up strength. What do you think?

Some more ads, from the 6th December:


And the 9th:



These are most definitely marketed to people worried about the pandemic and nursing loved ones through them. A bit skeevy, but business is business, I suppose.

But on the 11th, some good news!


Well, good news for everyone but the Blacks. How heartbreaking.

Cases may be declining, but the worry wouldn’t have. So the advertisements continue.

12th December:


But a plus side to the epidemic/infection: booze! Booze that was in short supply, even! From the 17th December:


Medically prescribed booze. That’s almost as good as the advertisements that tried to persuade people that sweets were a good substitute for rationed necessities (which I will post about soon).

From the 18th December:


As the cases declined, they started to look to the future. And while advertisers were making the most of the opportunities, insurance companies were facing massive bills. From the 21st December:


By the 24th, the stories around influenza were getting a bit odd. I think it must have been a slow news day, being Christmas Eve:


Beechams got on topic with a stars-and-stripes themed ad on Christmas Eve, as President Wilson was visiting London.


By the 28th, deaths had declined dramatically:


And people could buy Bovril again with a clean conscience.

Next: Rationing, and a recipe for an authentic 1918 Christmas pudding.


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3 thoughts on “Life after the war: Spanish Flu

  1. LurkRealClose on said:

    I read a fascinating book about this epidemic and how it changed medicine in the US, called The Great Influenza. Also, I went to Amazon to look up the name of the book, and they wanted to let me know there was a new book out by CS Lewis. I think they don’t understand the word “new” exactly.

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