Shortly before Christmas, as the pandemic wreaked havoc in the Iowa countryside, Rebecca Tinti was visiting neighbors who had fallen ill.
On the family’s farm, she found seven, including a newborn baby, bedridden by the disease, leaving a 6-year-old girl to take care of everyone.
Ms. Tinti stepped in to help, but she could not avoid the tragedy. “The gentleman had waited for the rest until he relapsed and continued to worsen, until he died a week later,” she wrote in a letter dated January 1919. “I stayed until the funeral, which was Christmas Eve. . “
Ms Tinti’s letters are now in the hands of the daughter of her goddaughter Ruth M. Lux, 72, of Lidderdale, Iowa. Ms. Lux has dozens of old family letters, which were passed down through her mother and grandmother. “I call my home the Lidderdale branch of the National Archives,” she said.
These letters – updates on corn crops and slaughtered pigs, interspersed with reports of illness and death – are dispatches from the national front of the so-called Spanish Flu, a pandemic in which millions of Americans have been sick and 675,000 died, among at least 50 million dead worldwide.
This pandemic, like the coronavirus today, seemed to be spreading across the United States in waves. The winter holidays of 1918 were marked by serious losses. They came during a relative lull after the deadliest wave, in the fall. Another, smaller increase would peak shortly after New Year’s Day.
But the national conversation around private family gatherings seemed to have been less busy in 1918 than it is today, as many people tired of months of restrictions bristle at health agency advice on staying at home.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have lost loved ones,” said J. Alexander Navarro, medical historian at the University of Michigan and editor of the Online Influenza Encyclopedia. “But by the time of Thanksgiving, there really wasn’t much debate about whether or not to get together.”
They did, often with an empty chair at the table.
At the time, another major event was stealing the headlines: the end of the First World War. The soldiers were returning home and the Allied victory was a cause for celebration.
“This year we have a special and moving cause to be thankful for and rejoice in,” President Woodrow Wilson said in a Thanksgiving proclamation, which did not mention the pandemic. “God has given us peace in His good pleasure.”
And although the soldiers’ domestic and international trips played a major role in the spread of the flu, reports from the time suggest the risk of infection did not stop people from celebrating the Allied victory in person. .
On Christmas Eve 1918, the New York Times reported that thousands of soldiers would be welcomed into homes in New York City and invited to attend dances and parties. At an event at the 71st Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in Manhattan, “In addition to the fun and dancing, there will be 300 pounds of chocolate fondant made by pretty girls and so many pounds of frozen cake, mostly made by their mothers ”. says the report.
Other celebrations were more discreet. For many people in the United States, the Christmas vacation was centered around the home, said Penne L. Restad, historian at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in vacations.
Vacation travel was less common in 1918 than today, in part because families tended to live more closely together, Dr Restad said. The practice of dragging an evergreen tree indoors to decorate it was all the rage. Just like the gifts for the children, delivered by Santa Claus.
For many, church services were also part of the holiday season. And in 1918, Ms Lux’s great-grandmother, Caroline Schumacher, was sad to miss them.
“I guess you saw the city being quarantined,” she said in a letter from Carroll, Iowa, dated Dec. 29. “I don’t know how long it will be closed. It’s terrible when there is no church. It didn’t look like Christmas at all.
Because personal letters relayed details of everyday life, they sometimes retained bits of history that newspapers ignored, Dr Restad said. “Home culture, and to a large extent consumer culture, is often recorded by women,” she added.
Letters from Ms Lux’s family, some of which are difficult to read due to fine handwriting or irregular spelling and grammar, were transcribed in 2014 by Julia Evans, who was then studying history at the Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and now operates museum exhibits.
Newspapers have covered the pandemic as well, and reports from across the United States have shown a patchwork of responses from authorities to the spread of the flu.
In Hamilton, MT, the Ravalli Republican reported that a multi-month city-wide shutdown was lifted in late December 1918 – just in time for churches and cinemas to open on Christmas Day.
In Lodi, Calif., “Due to the flu here, Christmas celebrations have been drastically reduced, although merchants are reporting great holiday deals,” The Sacramento Bee reported on Christmas Eve. “There will be no municipal tree this year.”
And shortly after Christmas, the Chicago Defender published reports of families who had gathered for family visits or church services across Illinois. The reports were interspersed with notices of people who had fallen ill or had died from the flu.
This year, as coronavirus cases increase and healthcare professionals brace for an upsurge in infections associated with vacation travel, Ms Lux plans to stay home alone over Christmas. But letters from his family from a century ago spoke of gatherings and grave excavations.
“I have been busy for three weeks doing neighbor chores and burying the dead,” wrote a relative, John Tinti, in February 1919. “I have helped lay off more people this winter than ever in my life. life. It was really horrible.
Margaret Hamilton, another relative, wrote that she almost died herself. “My heart almost refused to work and my lips and nails were purplish black,” she said in a letter from March 1919. “Sure, almost passed.
Ms Lux was very impressed with Rebecca Tinti, the great-godmother whose letters recounted several trips to care for seriously ill friends and neighbors. “This lady was literally the Florence Nightingale of Adair County,” Ms. Lux said.
So, on a blustery day in April – the same month the worldwide death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 – Ms Lux drove about 60 miles from Lidderdale to Casey, Iowa, to see where Ms Tinti was. was buried almost 90 years ago.
The grave was easy to find, in a small cemetery on top of a hill. “I thought to myself, ‘No one has put anything on these graves for decades and decades,’ Ms. Lux said.
She put down a bouquet of silk flowers before going home.