History | August 1, 2020 5:26 pm

In 1918, the Spanish Flu Had Its Own Memes

Bleak humor is a constant in times of crisis

Spanish Flu, CA, 1918
San Francisco during a past pandemic.
Hamilton Henry Dobbin/Creative Commons

As we’re living through an ongoing pandemic, it’s understandable to look back into history to see what can be learned from earlier pandemics. Sometimes the information we learn offers eerie parallels between earlier moments in history and today. At other timess, it can cast a surprising light on previously unheralded moments in the past. And sometimes, we learn that pandemic memes did not begin in the 21st century.

Writing at Smithsonian Magazine, Katherine A. Foss explored the ways the popular culture of the time processed the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918. This included methods like satirical poetry, advice columns and a whole lot of wordplay. Foss writes that the 1918 football season was put on hold due to the war and the pandemic — which led at least one column about sports to head in an odd direction:

With nothing to report on for his “Looking ‘Em Over” column, Washington Times sportswriter Louis A. Dougher created a mock line-up, featuring disease-stopping tools as players: “Fresh Air” as “tackle” and “Quinine” as “quarterback,” with the team rounded out by Antiseptic, Ice Pack, Gargle, Alcohol Rub, Castor Oil, Mask, and Sleep.

Among the reasons commentary on the pandemic appeared in unexpected outlets, Foss notes, is that the war had resulted in a crackdown on what could and could not be said in print. Poems, like one satirizing the attitude that the Spanish Flu was nothing to worry about, were able to make their point as strongly as a more detailed news report. There may not have animated gifs or clever cat videos around in 1918, but the same sense of resourcefulness that fuels memes today helped make their 1918 equivalents soar.

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