Letters from the Attic: 1918 Flu Epidemic Edition

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December, 1918. The nation is in the midst of the flu epidemic. My grandmother Florence and her sister Doris are both living in Boston, far from home–Billings, Montana. Doris caught a cold and wrote about it to Mama. I have the reply; it’s a letter from Mama and clipping from page 2 of the Billings Gazette. It provides a glimpse to us, 89 years later, of what surviving the flu was like. Including how, exactly, Vick’s VapoRub works.

The letter, dated Dec 10, 1918, begins thus:

Stapleton Bldg
Billings, Mont
Dec 10, 1918.

Dear Girls,
Both your letters came today. I was sorry to hear of Doris’ cold and also worried. Why didn’t you use the Vaporub as I told you? I have never known it to fail to break up the “flu” and it has also cured pneumonia. It is just as it is spelled Vapo rub, Doris asked once how to pronounce it.

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The letter covers lots of topics—how is grandpa (no one wrote me), about the sewing that Mama did—both to keep her family clothed, and to earn a little extra money to help put her daughter through school.

What I love about the letters from my great-grandmother are the financial details contained therein. here—along with a section that touches once more on staying healthy—is another sample:

What happened to your SSP bill, are you trying to starve yourselves to add to the rest of your troubles? Dad is still getting $150. per and may next month, the plan is for $125. during the dull season but it has not arrived as yet. Commencing Jan 1 he is to keep Missick’s books which will bring in an additional $25 per.

Will soon be even with the board at that rate.

Why don’t you get paper plates and sauce dishes at the 5 & 10? They sell them here 18 for 50¢, that saves washing dishes. Take as good care of yourselves as you can till I get there. Dad thinks I will make it. Don’t try to get things done, in fact when I tell you definitely let everything go, we can eat at the Chinaman’s or elsewhere. You know I am familiar with every dish in the house dirty and I don’t care how bad a mess you’re in so long as you’re well and moral. I am coming to take care of your bodies and you might as well have a job for me to start in on, you will need to take no thought of your food or raiment.

I guess that Mama was coming out to visit her daughters soon. She closes her letter with this: “Gather in programs of all the lecture courses.”

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That newspaper article is a treat, though. (click on the smaller image to view a larger-sized image of the news story. The text is reproduced below, too.

Vick’s VapoRub. And here I thought that the InterCap style of naming things was recent in-my-lifetime phenomenon. It’s a naming fad that arose from computer software development, as demonstrated in this set of product, company, or technology names (MacWrite, HyperCard, InfoVista, MetaTools, MetaCreations, MicroSoft?, TurboTax, QuickTime, JavaScript). Nope. They were naming products that way 89 years ago.

And the description of it. This reads like a puff-piece on Vick’s VapoRub. Did they get their PR people to half-write the story? Or was it genuinely a new, revolutionary remedy? The possibilities are tantalizing.

Billings Gazette, Monday December 9, 1918
Page 2
How to use Vick’s Vaporub in treating Spanish Influenza
the Influenza Germs Attack the Lining of the Air Passages. When VapoRub is Applied Over Throat and Chest the Medicated Vapors Loosen the Phlegm, Open the Air Passages and Stimulate the Mucous Membrane to Throw Off the Germs.

In Addition, VapoRub is Absorbed Through and Stimulates the Skin, Attracting the Blood to the Surface and Thus Aids in Reducing the Congestion Within.

Call a Physician—Go to bed—Stay Quiet—Don’t worry

There is no Occasion for Panic—Influenza itself has a very low percentage of Fatalities, Not Over One Death Out of Every Four Hundred Cases, According to the N.C. Board of Health. The Chief Danger Lies in Complications Arising, Attacking Principally Patients in a Run Down Condition—Those Who Don’t Go to Bed Soon Enough, or Those who Get Up too Early.

Spanish Influenza, which appeared in Spain in May, has all the appearance of grip or la grippe, which has swept over the world in numerous epidemics as far back as history runs. Hippocrates refers to an epidemic in 412 B.C. which is regarded by many to have been influenza. Every century has had its attacks. Beginning with 1831, this country has had five epidemics, the last in 1889-90.

The Symptoms.

Grip, or influenza, as it is now called, usually begins with a chill followed by aching, feverishness and sometimes nausea and dizziness, and a general feeling of weakness and depression. the temperature is from 100 to 104, and the fever usually lasts from three to five days. The germs attack the mucous membrane, or lining of the air passages—nose, throat and bronchial tubes—there is usually a ha4rd cough, especially bad at night, often times a sore throat or tonsillitis, and frequently all the appearances of a severe head cold.

The Treatment.

Go to bed at the first symptoms, not only for your own sake, but to avoid spreading the disease to others—take a purgative, eat plenty of nourishing food, remain perfectly quiet and don’t worry. Quinine, Aspirin or Dover’s Powder, etc., may be administered by the physician’s directions to relieve the aching. But there is no cure or specific for influenza—the disease must run its course, but nature herself will throw off the attack if only you keep up your strength. The chief danger lies in the complications which may arise. Influenza so weakens the bodily resistance that there is danger of pneumonia or bronchitis developing and sometimes inflammation of the middle ear, or heart affections. for these reasons, it is very important that the patient remain in bed until his strength returns—stay in bed at least two days or more after the fever has left you, or if you are over 50 or not strong, stay in bed four days or more, according to the severity of the attack.

External Applications.

In order to stimulate the lining of the air passages to throw off the grip germs, to aid in loosening the phlegm and keeping the air passages open, thus making the breathing easier, Vick’s VapoRub will be found effective. Hot, wet towels should be applied over the throat, chest and back between the shoulder blades to open the pores. Then VapoRub should be rubbed in over the parts until the skin is red, spread on thickly and covered with two thicknesses of hot flannel cloths. Leave the clothing loose around the neck and the heat of the body liberates the ingredients in the form of vapors. These vapors, inhaled with each breath, carry the medication directly to the parts affected. At the same time, VapoRub is absorbed through and stimulates the skin, attracting the blood to the surface and thus aids in relieving the congestion within.

How to avoid the disease.

Evidence seem to prove that this is a germ disease, spread principally by human contact, chiefly through coughing, sneezing or spitting. So avoid persons having colds—which means voiding crowds—common drinking cups, roller towels, etc. Keep up bodily strength by plenty of exercise in the open air, and good food.

Keep free from colds.

Above all, keep free from colds, as colds irritate the lining of the air passages and render them much better breeding places for the germs. Use Vick’s VapoRub at the very first sign of a cold. For a head cold, melt a little in a spook and inhale the vapors, or better still, sue VapoRub in a benzoin steam kettle. If this is not available, use an ordinary tea kettle. Fill half full of boiling water, up to in half a teaspoon of VapoRub from time to time,—keep the kettle just slowly boiling, and inhale the steam arising.

NOTE—Vick’s VapoRub is the discovery of a North Carolina druggist, who found how to combine, in salve form, Menthol and camphor with such essential oils and Eucalyptus, Thyme, Cubebs, etc., so that when the salve is applied to the body heat, these ingredients are liberated in the form of vapors.

VapoRub is comparatively new in New York, New England and a few western states, where it is just now being introduced. In other sections of the country, however, it is the standard home remedy in over a million homes for all forms of cold troubles—more than six million jars were sold last year.

It is particularly recommended for children’s croup or colds, since it is externally applied and, therefore, can be used as freely as desired without the slightest harmful effects. VapoRub can be had in three sizes—30c, 60c, $1.20—at all druggists.

UPDATE: More on the 1918 flu. A semi-family story San Francisco-centric perspective

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 15, 2007 in • Letters in the AtticPersonal History
8 CommentsPermalink

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My father-in-law who is 89 and from Montana, felt the same way about VapoRub. He would lather it on a sock and wrap it around his neck.

footnoteMaven  on 04/17  at  02:43 PM

I wonder if Vick’s VapoRub (I’ll never feel comfortable just capitalizing the V) is a generational thing. My boyfriend told me about when he was sick—at Nana’s  house—she’d slather VapoRub on him. (Mom didn’t use it.) The pungent smell made for weird camphorous dreams.

BTW, I did the math to figure out how long ago the epidemic was. 1918 is 89 years ago. Does he have any stories of frightened parents who went the extra mile to ensure their newborn baby did not get sick?

Susan A. Kitchens  on 04/17  at  02:56 PM

My Mother, who is 78 years old swears by the stuff. Got a sore throat? Just put a small dab at the back of your mouth. At the first sign of a sniffle or cough, smother you neck and chest with Vicks VapoRub! It really does work though the smell can sometimes be a problem. It’s great for migrain headaches as well, just rub some across your forehead and under your eyes and hide under the bedcovers for a couple of hours!

Becky Wiseman  on 04/17  at  04:54 PM

Wow, just how long has Vick’s Vaporub been around?!  I haven’t used in in ages, but I can always remember the smell of it!

Nikki-ann  on 05/20  at  01:02 PM

My Great Aunt Lucile Strimple died from the 1918 Flu Epidemic.  I have her death certificate.  She’s buried in Greenwich along with many of my ancestors.  My Great Aunt Marion told me similar accounts.

Lee Martin  on 06/24  at  11:04 AM

I used Vick’s Vaporub when I was young.

Lee Martin  on 06/24  at  11:06 AM

With VapoRub, a little goes a looooong way.

Approximately five years ago, I finally used up the last of the VapoRub from the jar my mother had when I was a kid. After some four decades, it had not lost any of its distinctive odor! What the heck is in that stuff, anyway?

Note to self: Buy another jar.

Paula Johnson  on 01/03  at  03:45 PM

I am a newspaper reporter and would like to do a story on the use of VapoRub during the flu outbreak. Please call me at 336-373-7027.

don patterson  on 06/24  at  02:23 PM

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