1918 flu pandemic: What’s new is old

Internal memo reveals Boeing’s history of pandemic response.

August 31, 2020 in Innovation, Technology

“This company urges all employees to use … masks.”

“The slightest indication of a cold, chill, or fever, should be sufficient warning for any employee to seek medical attention at once.”

“Avoid crowds whenever possible.”

Messages from 2020? Try 1918. In an all-employee memo from the 29th of October of that year, when “expectoration” was clearly an issue, the directives above are preceded by the first:

“Expectoration, especially upon the floor, walks, and drive ways should be absolutely prohibited.”

The 1918 flu pandemic had made its way to Seattle. It began in Europe and Asia and spread quickly among soldiers returning from the packed trenches of World War I. Ultimately, more than 500 million were infected, which amounted to roughly a quarter of the world’s population at the time.

American soldiers brought the flu with them to the United States, where it was transmitted in camps and on crowded trains. Traveling cross-country via rail lines, the flu took hold in remote places such as Seattle, home of the fledgling Boeing Airplane Company.

The pandemic peaked in October 1918, prompting the company memo that also advised “sneezing, coughing, or breathing in the face of a fellow workman should be avoided.” That was in addition to the aforementioned expectoration, a reference to the popular practice of chewing tobacco.

At the Boeing plant, spittoons were provided, but according to memoirs left by Boeing seamstresses, the men weren’t careful enough. The spit ended up all over floors and walls — something the seamstresses found abhorrent.

This memo, known as a “circular letter,” was sent to all Boeing employees on Oct. 29, 1918, as a flu pandemic gripped the globe.

Boeing Archives

Written by company founder William Boeing’s cousin, Edgar Gott, the general manager at the time, the so-called “circular letter” contained instructions with the subject “Influensa Epidemic – Precautions deemed advisable.” Today the letter lives in the Boeing Archives.

The memo reveals a number of parallels between 1918 and today, such as the importance of considering others: “This as a precaution not only to himself, but to his fellow worker.” Similar to today, Seattle-area schools, religious institutions and theaters closed to prevent the spread of the flu.

A hundred years ago, humanity dealt with overlapping pandemics, such as typhoid and diphtheria, as well as the flu. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to theorize that sleeping with the windows open could prevent disease, hence the memo’s guidance to “see that the room in which you are working is well ventilated.”

The flu pandemic lingered for about two years before ending in 1920.