By Jane Jenkins
Spreading as fast as the COVID-19 pandemic these days are ads and YouTube videos touting cures and preventatives: if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds you don’t have the virus but if you do fall victim megadoses of Vitamin C, lemons, zinc lozenges, and anti-malaria drugs can cure you. Peddlers of quack cures like these see opportunity in the uncertainty of a world turned upside down. Things weren’t much different during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
When influenza swept into New Brunswick in the fall of 1918, people were already bone-weary from four years of war and it seemed almost incomprehensible that things could get any worse. Unfortunately, people were soon overwhelmed by fear of the invisible killer they called “the enemy in our midst”. Health Department officials responded swiftly and within days of the first reported cases, issued orders to close all theatres, schools, and churches and to prohibit large gatherings and meetings. Although shops and small businesses could remain open, customer flow was greatly reduced. The province had been shut down and it would stay that way for five long weeks.
Isolation, boredom, and overwhelming dread replaced the usual routines of life that chilly fall of 1918. And feeding on this widespread anxiety were newspaper advertisements and articles trumpeting remedies to prevent or cure influenza by keeping the right attitude, making home-made recipes, or buying ready-made items. In most cases, the path to cure and comfort led straight to the clothes and other goods for sale in shops and stores.
Reassuring advice to stay positive had been sent out in step with early rumours of an epidemic. One newspaper editorial in the St. John Standard reassured readers cheerfully that “the epidemic will probably pass away as suddenly as it came.” And if, on the off chance it did strike close to home, all one needed to combat it was a positive attitude and plenty of fresh air and sunshine.
Once it had hit, however, a flurry of newspaper articles appeared offering advice about how to deal with the terrible epidemic. Protection could be as easy as eating three yeast cakes a day and maintaining a regular diet with plenty of onions. Exercise was important if one kept cool while walking and warm while bicycling. Breathe through the nose, not the mouth. Home-made flu preventatives required ample quantities of iodine and turpentine. Other preventatives came in the form of bags of menthol hung around the neck with pink-coloured bags most likely to cheer up the wearer. The main thing was to avoid panic. Other recipes swore that mustard ointment and concentrated essence of cinnamon could keep out the dangerous seeds of disease.
Advertisements marketed a range of manufactured products, from gargles and nose sprays to lozenges, all of which should be bought in large quantities for frequent use. Wampole’s Paraformic Lozenges, at 25 cents a bottle, were touted for their protective value: “A tablet in the mouth protects against contagion in public places.” Johnson’s Anodyne Liniment, was “Enemy to Germs” and good for the nose and throat. And it did double duty because, “with an occasional dose taken internally” it could “safeguard you from serious results and halt the evil in its first stage.” People recovering from flu could manage “After Flu-Effects and Weakness” with “Creophos – a fine combination of cod liver extract, hypophosphites and creosote.” And if you had enough money you could rent a Violet Ray machine for $4 a week ($15 a month). This electro-therapy was already a popular remedy for everything from acne to kidney stones but during the influenza epidemic it was plugged as the definitive cure.
Businessmen who leveraged the influenza epidemic for profit sold less unusual products. One clothing store, noting that “chances are all in favour of persons who do not fear the ‘demic”, recommended that people should “turn thoughts to Fall and Winter Clothing! Cheer Up! Don’t get Blue! Invest in Some New Clothes and Victory Bonds!” Another clothing store, headlining its ad with the claim that: “Shakespeare Knew the Value of Sleep” went on to thank the Health Department for closing theatres, bowling alleys, and other places of amusement because this meant there was “Nothing to Do But Z-Z-Z” – in Pussy-willow Pyjamas and Nightshirts that were “soft as a kitten’s wrist and only $2.00”. Stores selling foot-ware highlighted the need to keep feet dry and comfortable with new shoes or boots. Druggists guaranteed their hot water bottles were “assistant ‘flu chasers”.
These ads prove that hope sells. And we see this age-old truth playing out again today. In the end, long after COVID-19 fades away, profiting from pandemics will endure.
Jane Jenkins is an Associate Professor and Director of the Science and Technology Studies program at St. Thomas University. To see Dr. Jenkins speak with ATV News about the Spanish Flu click here.