'A hardship on the merchants and the people alike': Christmas during the 1918 flu pandemic

Ontario's newspapers during our pandemic Christmas in 1918 tell a now familiar story
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Dec 24, 2020
The Spanish flu's spread during the 1918 holiday season led to very different responses from officials across Ontario. (Toronto Public Library)



“Four-fifths of the Health Officers of Canada and the United States give it as their opinion that placarding and quarantine of influenza cases in such an outbreak as experienced in Ontario are incapable of enforcement,” said Dr. J.W.S. McCullough, Ontario's provincial health officer, on November 28, 1918.

Ontarians in 1918 faced a holiday season marked by stark contrast: in some regions, life had more or less returned to normal following the second wave of the Spanish flu epidemic which had hit hard in October, while others grappled with new restrictions as the number of cases rose. Some medical officers heeded McCullough’s advice and decided to ride out new infections, while others were determined to halt the spread by any means necessary.

Tensions ran high in Hamilton. The first round of restrictions on public activity had been lifted on November 9, but medical officer of health James Roberts warned that the public should not be lulled into a false sense of security. “The epidemic is still serious as may be seen from the large number of deaths reported from day to day, and there should be no diminution of precautions on the part of the individual citizen,” he told the press on November 13. He watched with unease the public celebrations following the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War, deciding that he would “stay at home and not die before my time came.”

On November 29, a day after 139 new cases were reported, the Hamilton Board of Health banned all public meetings in Hamilton, closing churches, pool rooms, and theatres. Unlike earlier restrictions, these required all offices and stores to close at 4 p.m. Toronto General Hospital received a request to send 20 nurses to Hamilton, and the city hired more through newspaper ads. The city’s business community was furious. They believed Roberts should have extended business hours to prevent crowding. While the board didn’t entirely explain their reasoning, the local press suspected that the Hamilton Board of Health wanted to ensure shoppers weren’t crowding streetcars at the same time as workers heading home. The Hamilton Times feared that the move would create a crush of consumers in stores between 2 and 4 p.m., creating “a menace to public health and a hardship on the merchants and the people alike.” The Hamilton Spectator created a new section called “Knutty Points” to allow the public to vent their frustration at the new restrictions.

Though they claimed public pressure played no part, the Board of Health lifted public restrictions on December 16. Christmas shoppers immediately flooded into stores. McCullough criticized Roberts, saying that such restrictions were useless and other medical officers of health should not be so “fussy.”

During the restriction period, at least one church was fined for holding an illegal service in early December. Elsewhere, some religious faithful were offended that communities chose to close churches to halt the spread of flu. In an angry letter to the Amherstburg Echo (whose catchment area had such a ban in effect), “A Church Member” grumbled that “the crowded street cars continue running, the shops, the banks, the workshops remain open. Is it because ‘business as usual’ is more important than the worship of God? Surely not.” The author believed closures did not “show due consideration for the public welfare,” and felt that it was hypocritical religious matters carried on a few months earlier on the battlefields of Europe but couldn’t withstand the flu.

In Guelph, officials at the Ontario Provincial Winter Fair hoped that a local rise in flu cases wouldn’t affect their exhibition, which began on December 5. As local hospitals filled up, attendance nosedived. “The warm, moist air in the stables at the fair seemed the ideal breeding ground for the germ,” the agricultural journal Farm and Dairy reported. When the fair ended on December 12, only half of the exhibitors and their assistants were still present. The fair cancelled performances that evening and sped up the judging of Clydesdale horses so that exhibitors could flee the city.

Officials attending a special meeting of the Guelph Board of Health on December 12 decided to wait several days before taking stronger action, though they agreed that children who lived with anyone diagnosed with the flu would be barred from school. Their indecision didn’t last long: on December 14, they shut down schools, cancelled most scheduled Christmas activities, and banned anyone under the age of 16 from attending movie theatres.

Local officials determined whether or not their schools would be closed. Some shut down in mid-December as case counts in their communities rose. In places with few cases, such as Peterborough, officials figured they could hold out until the Christmas break officially began. In Windsor, officials decided against closing schools and other public venues, figuring such a move would be useless as long as similar spaces remained open in Detroit.

In the nation’s capital, despite reporting 224 cases on December 23, Ottawa Board of Health chairman Campbell Laidlaw was not concerned. “There are bound to be a considerable number of cases throughout the city from time to time during the winter, and the people should be warned to take all reasonable precautions,” he told the Ottawa Journal. After Christmas, Laidlaw told the press that he expected the flu to linger until spring, when it would hopefully burn itself out. He reiterated that “there is no occasion for alarm.”

Based on letters to Santa published by the Journal, many Ottawa-area youngsters hoped that Mr. and Mrs. Claus had not been affected by the flu. “It is a bad thing,” noted a boy from Renfrew. “I hope you haven’t had it for I want you around this year,” wrote a girl from Kemptville, while another girl in Hull urged Santa not to forget “the poor little orphans that have no parents from that Spanish influenza.”

The flu didn’t forget orphans in Kingston, where it was reported that as of Christmas Eve, 47 residents of an orphanage had fallen ill, with 10 sent to hospital along with the home’s superintendent. Adding to the misery, the cook had recently broken her leg, leading to a shortage of help. Medical students from Queen’s University, along with nurses in training, were brought in to alleviate the situation. A larger outbreak occurred at Toronto’s Sacred Heart Orphanage, where around 100 children were diagnosed with the flu.

Christmas Eve saw Stouffville shut down, thanks to 60 new cases over the previous five days. Medical officer of health F.A. Dales urged people not to do any last-minute Christmas shopping, public meetings were banned, and no more than five people at a time were allowed in the post office to collect their holiday mail. Starting on Boxing Day, the post office closed to the public during the morning to allow workers to safely sort the mail.

Farther south, officials in Toronto felt the situation there was under control. The cases being treated were milder, leading to far fewer deaths than earlier in the fall. “The disease is present just as a forest fire smoulders after the intensity of the blaze has died down,” medical officer of health Charles Hastings told the Globe. “Every once in awhile an area not previously invaded will flare up.”

With January municipal elections approaching, how the flu was handled became a political issue, especially in Ottawa. Mayoral candidate Dr. R.H. Parent accused incumbent mayor Harold Fisher of underplaying the role of poverty and poor hygiene in the spread of flu in some parts of the city, and of spending too much money on supplies compared to cities with higher case counts like Montreal. Fisher countered that Montreal’s costs only reflected how much was spent at one hospital, that much of the care there was funded privately, and that the public purse was opened to save lives. Fisher was easily re-elected, while Parent grumbled that the press and “other interests” had conspired against him.

Based on numbers provided by undertakers, 1,658 deaths in December were attributed to the flu and related pneumonia, down from 3,105 in October and in 2,608 in November. The highest mortality counts were in Toronto (232) and Hamilton (183). Restrictions would ease during January, though cases of the flu would linger on through 1919.

Sources: the December 13, 1918 edition of the Amherstburg Echo; the December 16, 1918 and January 4, 1919 editions of the Border Cities Star; the December 24, 1918 edition of the Daily British Whig; the December 19, 1918 edition of Farm and Dairy; November 28, 1918, November 29, 1918, December 14, 1918, December 24, 1918, December 27, 1918, December 28, 1918, and December 30, 1918 editions of the Globe; the November 29, 1918 edition of the Hamilton Times; the December 2012 edition of Health; the December 30, 1918 edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the December 11, 1918, December 13, 1918, December 14, 1918, December 23, 1918, December 28, 1918, and January 7, 1919 editions of the Ottawa Journal; and the December 21, 1918 edition of the Peterborough Examiner.

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