The Glue Room’s Influenza Bulletin

First in an occasional series of “Schwamb Shares”

Hello to all our friends and supporters. Since we are all staying at home for some weeks to come, and the Mill is closed, our directors, consultants and volunteers will be sharing items of interest about the Old Schwamb Mill, mills in general, and upcoming activities, exhibits, and research question. We thought we’d start with this Influenza Bulletin from the Massachusetts Department of Health:

Our copy of this notice, pasted on the sliding door to the glue room, is the worse for wear. Workers passed through this door carrying frames and tools dozens of times a week for over fifty years after we believe this notice was posted, just as visitors do today.

We do not know who posted the bulletin, or why, but its relevance in the fall of 1918 would have been obvious. Massachusetts was in the midst of the influenza pandemic, with Boston and nearby communities hit hard from September to November of that year. Schools and stores were closed, hospitals overwhelmed, and tents erected to handle patients with severe flu or pneumonia. This notice included recommendations for individuals, householders, nurses, and workers to reduce the likelihood of infection.

You can read a contemporary version of the Influenza Bulletin published in the Winchester Star on October 4, 1918, bottom of page 3.

Some of the bulletin’s advice will sound familiar: Walk to work. Wash your hands. Cover you mouth with a handkerchief if you cough or sneeze. Avoid crowded places. Allow no visitors, and do not go visiting. Stay in bed if you have influenza. Nurses were advised, “When in attendance upon patients, wear a mask which will cover both the nose and mouth. When the mask is once in place, do not handle it.” Because gauze was scarce (in demand both for the flu and the war overseas) nurses were told to change the mask every two hours and boil it before reuse.

Some of the Department’s good advice came with a high tone. “Keep away from crowded places such as ‘movies,’ theatres, street cars”; “A common towel is only for filthy people.” In the age of take-out, we have more confidence in our public eateries than the Department of Health did in 1918: “Keep out of dirty restaurants”; “Soda is unnecessary. Why run the risk of infection from a dirty glass?”

Other advice would have been familiar to Americans of the 1910s: Open your windows at night (with extra “bed clothing” for cold nights). Walk in the fresh air and sunshine daily.

So was the Mill affected by the influenza pandemic of 1918? It is difficult to say. For the year 1918, we do not have time and hours books naming each worker week-by-week. The Clinton W. Schwamb Company ledgers show that payroll went down for several weeks in October of that year – the worst month of the flu for Boston – but payroll often varied at the company week-to-week, especially in wartime.

We do know of a future Mill worker who survived the flu that year. Peter Jerardi lived with his family in Arlington and came to work at the Mill when he was a sophomore in high school, from 1920 to 1922. He knew the other men who worked there on a first name basis and eventually turned frames. In an oral history with Patricia Fitzmaurice, he described surviving the influenza in 1918 in his family home on Forest Street:

We lived there since 1904. I was born in Boston and they moved out almost immediately. And my youngest sister who’s still alive was here in that house. And Dr. Sanger, he had a home just about across from Brattle Street. …During World War One we all got influenza and pneumonia. And he came up to see us. They said we both were very sick, and hers developed into pneumonia and she went to Symmes. I stayed at home and he came up and … there was no medicine, just chicken soup was the only thing they give us … to [mellow] it but … we were all pretty sick. We made it.

We look forward to seeing all of our friends and supporters in good health soon. Until then, watch for the next installment of Schwamb Shares.

Dermot Whittaker, President, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!