Snapshot of the World in 1918
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Roller skating rinks, movies, dance halls, pool halls, amusement parks, saloons. Despite the fact the world was at war, Americans in 1918 had more money and more leisure time than any previous generation and they flocked to these activities in growing numbers.
Fans swarmed into the nation’s many movie theaters and America’s love affair with Hollywood celebrities was already a permanent part of the culture. Unlike today, however, moviegoers had an incredibly wide range of choices as almost eight hundred movies were made in 1918 alone. These silent films were shorter than those shown today but the stars of these films were as popular as today’s actors and actresses.
Live theater was declining in popularity but it was still popular enough to provide Hollywood with serious competition in 1918. Vaudeville, which consisted of a series of skits, remained a crowd-pleaser and vaudeville stars rivaled those of Hollywood in their popularity.
Skating rinks, pool halls, dance halls and amusement parks also provided working-class Americans with cheap amusements. Beach-going also became popular and Americans of all classes flocked to lakes and the seaside.
As more and more Americans moved to cities and the suburbs, they turned to stories about rural America and the Wild West. In 1918, Zane Gray’s The U.P Trail topped the best seller list. America’s entry into World War I in 1917 also sparked an interest in war literature and war poetry. On a lighter note, fan magazines such as Photoplay catered to America’s love of celebrity with stories about actors and actresses.
But if entertainment became big business in the early twentieth century, it also became a concern for public health experts. Fearing the spread of influenza, government officials rushed to close many of these places during the height of the pandemic.
World War I, or the Great War as it was known to contemporaries, began in the summer of 1914. While the exact causes of the war are hotly debated, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is often viewed as the smoking gun. This event triggered a war between several nations, many of which were united in military alliances.
Although people had originally believed that the war would be brief, the war dragged on for four years, with nations as far away as Japan and the United States ultimately becoming involved in the conflict. By 1917, when the United States entered the war, the warring European nations were locked in a stalemate; millions of soldiers were dead and morale was on the decline among both civilians and the military. Trench warfare, as well as the introduction of chemical warfare and heavy artillery, had transformed Europe into a killing field.
Beginning in May of 1917, American men between the ages of 21 and 29 were required to register for the draft (ultimately, the draft would be expanded to include all men between the ages of 18 and 35). Once drafted, men were sent to military camps across the United States. These camps were often breeding grounds for disease and the Public Health Service aggressively worked with the War Department to protect soldiers from diseases ranging from smallpox to dysentery, syphilis, and cholera.
In 1918, American soldiers, stationed in military camps across the United States, were among the earliest victims of the pandemic. As the disease spread, military hospitals, both in the United States and abroad, quickly overflowed with influenza patients.
In November 1918, as the world struggled with the growing influenza pandemic, Germany collapsed. Peace was declared on November 11th. Nine million people, 340,000 of them Americans, had died during the war. Horrific as this number was, it would be dwarfed by the fifty million who would die in the influenza pandemic.
A Woman’s Place
In the nineteenth century, the typical role for American women was that of a wife and mother. This began to change in the early twentieth century.
Stepping outside the home, upper- and middle-class women embraced a range of new careers, becoming nurses, teachers, social workers, secretaries, and even telephone operators. A small minority of women even entered male-dominated fields, becoming lawyers, physicians and scientists.
Working-class women also found new opportunities as the war enabled them to obtain jobs traditionally held by men. By 1918, these women worked as factory workers in ammunition plants, bus conductors and even truck drivers.
While women never earned equal pay with men, the money which they did earn gave them more independence than their mothers and grandmothers had ever had.
Financial independence allowed women greater freedom in their social activities. Slipping away from chaperones, “respectable” women now went on dates, accompanied only by the young man of their choice.
Political rights were slow to emerge. However, in 1918, some states did allow women to vote and in 1916, Montana had elected Jeannette Rankin who became the first female member of Congress. Congress passed legislation giving all women the right to vote in 1919; however, the law did not take effect until 1920.
Across the United States, technological advances and improved productivity in the nation’s many factories had begun to transform the nation’s transportation systems.
The number of passengers traveling by rail had tripled since 1896, making trains the primary form of transport for Americans in 1918. Two years after the pandemic, in 1920, rail transportation peaked, with over a billion passengers traveling by rail.
Only a few Americans owned automobiles in 1918. However, Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model T, an affordable car for the masses, had begun to change all that. As cars became more common, a network of roads sprang up, gradually replacing the trains.
In 1918, however, this network of roads was still limited. PHS officers who used cars to travel to influenza patients routinely discovered that poorly maintained dirt roads caused punctured tires and damaged engines. During the pandemic, PHS officers who traveled by car were often forced to combine the skills of a mechanic with those of a physician.
Several American cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia boasted substantial subway systems and trolley lines, with the first underground system opening in Boston in 1897. The popularity of these systems made them a natural conduit for influenza. During the pandemic, many cities limited or even closed their public transportation systems. In those areas where transportation systems remained open, passengers wore masks to prevent the transmission of flu.
In 1843, Samuel Morse’s development of the telegraph made rapid long-distance communication possible. Seventy years later, Americans still relied on telegraphs to transmit information and news about a range of subjects, including the emergence of epidemics. During the early twentieth century, the PHS routinely used telegrams to communicate with officers stationed outside the Washington DC area. Because telegrams were read by telegraph operators, PHS officers used coded phrases when discussing epidemics and other public health crises.
Although telephones existed, they were extremely expensive to use and not always available in rural areas. The early twentieth century witnessed the expansion of the nation’s telephone lines. However, making telephone service readily available to all Americans was still very much a work in progress in 1918.
For less urgent matters, Americans continued to rely on letters. Although air mail service emerged only in 1918, the Postal Service delivered letters so quickly that many PHS officers used letters even when a matter was considered urgent.
Most cities and towns boasted their own local paper, with even small cities publishing more than one paper. Breaking news was often published as a separate newspaper which was called an “extra.”
While radio had also been introduced prior to this time and played a considerable role on the battlefield during World War I, the first commercial broadcasts were not conducted until the early 1920s.