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California

By late September, influenza was present throughout the West Coast. Within two weeks of the first reported outbreak in Massachusetts, over 35,000 people throughout California, had contracted influenza. According to state officials, influenza was most prevalent in the southern part of California but the death toll was high across the state. In early November, the number of reported cases peaked at over 115,000. Because officials were overwhelmed by the pandemic and unable to keep accurate records, the acutal number of cases was probably much higher than reported.

The swimmers who posed here at Seal Beach in 1917 discovered, in 1918, that state officials were prepared to close even California’s famous beaches to prevent the spread of the pandemic. [Credit: The Library of Congress]
The swimmers who posed here at Seal Beach in 1917 discovered, in 1918, that state officials were prepared to close even California’s famous beaches to prevent the spread of the pandemic. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

In Los Angeles, health officials were optimistic at the start of the pandemic. But by the middle of October, the city had been forced to close schools, churches, theaters, and all other recreational sites. Schools did not reopen for the next four months.

Three makeshift emergency hospitals were opened to care specifically for influenza patients. Unable to get a bed in one of the city’s hospitals, residents found themselves relying on remedies available in local drugstores. The manufacturers of Wilson's Solution claimed that its vapors could kill the disease and city residents flocked to buy the remedy, despite its steep price of 35 cents.

As movie theaters closed across the United States, audiences were forced to wait to see films such as Charlie Chaplain’s A Dog’s Life. Chaplain’s career was able to weather this delay but several small movie companies in Hollywood went bankrupt as a result of the pandemic. [Credit: Library of Congress]
As movie theaters closed across the United States, audiences were forced to wait to see films such as Charlie Chaplain’s A Dog’s Life. Chaplain’s career was able to weather this delay but several small movie companies in Hollywood went bankrupt as a result of the pandemic. [Credit: Library of Congress]

The city’s economy, which was already heavily dependent on the film industry, suffered. As movie theaters across the US closed, several new and small movie companies found themselves bankrupt. The city’s many retail owners also suffered as city officials asked everyone to do their Christmas shopping by phone. Shopkeepers were urged not to hold sales as these would draw crowds.

South of Los Angeles, the situation was little better. City officials in San Diego passed a law requiring all residents to wear gauze masks to prevent the spread of the disease. City officials were unaware that the masks of the era did little to prevent the spread of the disease.

Although the situation was believed to be slightly better in the northern half of the state, San Francisco also suffered terribly from the pandemic. As in San Diego, public health officials called for all residents to wear masks when in public. Within four days of this call, the Red Cross had distributed over 100,000 masks. But while The San Francisco Chronicle claimed that “the man who wears no mask will likely become isolated, suspected and regarded as a slacker,” the masks of the era had no real impact on the spread of the disease.

Residents searched for causes of the epidemic everywhere. One man, claiming to be a professor in San Francisco, informed the Public Health Service that the cause of the pandemic was obvious: he insisted that recent movements of the planet Jupiter had caused the spread of the disease.

The Public Health Service dismissed the professor’s letter but they found themselves unable to explain why this influenza season was more virulent than others. PHS officers were equally stymied as to how they could best assist the city’s residents. As public health officials debated which measures would be most effective, the city’s hospitals overflowed with influenza patients. A local motor corps found itself overwhelmed and unable to transport nurses and doctors to the city’s hospitals, making the situation even worse.

In Sacramento, masks were worn as late as February, even as the disease was waning there.

Influenza was not limited to the state’s cities. Rural areas, including Indian reservations, were also affected, and PHS doctors traveled across the state to treat patients in small towns and farming communities.

The disease peaked in the fall. Influenza remained prevalent throughout the state during the winter and spring of 1919. The disease did not begin to disappear from the state until the summer of 1919.

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