Echoes of a pandemic through headlines

Canceled events. Shuttered businesses. Debates about face coverings. Although the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 seems like a century ago, it was an actual century ago, in fall 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic rolled through most parts of the globe—including Utah. The newspaper headlines of the time show not only the concern and caution in the early stages of the pandemic but also the eventual drop in cases and easing of restrictions—the endgame that, for us, remains in the foggy future.

The J. Willard Marriott Library is launching a new digital exhibit to explore the 1918 flu pandemic in Utah through contemporary newspaper articles. The articles show how the issues and divisions that have appeared in the COVID-19 pandemic are, unfortunately, nothing new. 

Find the exhibit here, beginning with articles from late September 1918—102 years ago.

PHOTO CREDIT: J. Willard Marriott Library

Article from Dec. 2, 1918 in the Utah Daily Chronicle.

Collecting headlines

While researching historical air quality in Utah, Logan Mitchell, a research assistant professor in the department of atmospheric sciences, decided to browse the Utah Digital Newspapers archive, available through the Marriott Library, for news from the 1918 flu pandemic. “There is a lot!” he says. 

Utah Digital Newspapers currently has over 24 million newspaper pages and articles freely available to researchers everywhere. In recognition of the increased interest in studying the 1918 pandemic, the Marriott Library has created a digital collection, “1918 Flu Pandemic Newspapersthat allows researchers to quickly browse over 1,000 articles about how the influenza pandemic affected Utah.

Mitchell developed a research document collecting themes and timelines of the 1918 flu pandemic and collaborated with Marriott Library Digital Library Services Staff to develop an interactive exhibit that features a timeline, topics to explore and information on how to do your own research using Utah Digital Newspapers. “Seeing the parallels between the 1918 Flu Pandemic and the current COVID-19 pandemic made working on this project exciting,” says Anna Neatrour, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the Marriott Library. 

PHOTO CREDIT: J. Willard Marriott Library

An article in the Salt Lake Herald-Republican explains the benefits of face masks.

Here’s a sampling of what the digital exhibit has to offer:

  • Masks Then and Now compares newspaper coverage of masks for disease prevention in 1918 and 2020. Kallin Glauser, Digital Exhibits Assistant and a senior majoring in History and Economics, worked extensively on researching historical materials to develop the digital exhibit. 
  • The similarities between newspaper headlines is striking, which led to the Headline Comparisons section. “There were so many headlines from 1918 that could have easily been from 2020,” Glauser says. “One aspect that I wish we could compare is news about vaccine implementation, but that hasn’t happened yet.” 
  • Glauser recommends viewing the Spanish Flu Timeline to become familiar with the events of 1918 and the spread of the disease in Utah. “My favorite part of the timeline is the pictures we have of Utahns wearing their masks and serving their community. Even though we are separated by a century, I feel connected to these people and they give me hope that I too can make it through a pandemic.” 
  • Assistant professor of political science Phillip M. Singer aptly contributed a section on Politicizing Public Health. Singer also looks to the past when analyzing the current pandemic “Public health policy has a long history of being politicized,” Singer says. “To understand our current pandemic and the politics which shape the policies responding to COVID-19, we need to look to the past. Utah Digital Newspapers offers a rich resource of the experiences of everyday Utahns from a hundred years ago and how the 1918 flu shaped their lives and experiences and allows us to better understand our circumstances in 2020.”
  • Other sections, The Drugless Cure and Differing Opinions, show the range of responses Utahns expressed about the pandemic. Tina Kirkham, Digital Projects Manager of the Utah Digital Newspapers, delved into unproven medical treatments to the 1918 pandemic. “The tale of Utah chiropractors makes an interesting addendum to the Spanish Flu story,” she says. “Perhaps the shock of a world war and the arrival of this deadly illness drove the political change needed to finally legalize chiropractic in Utah.”
  • Finally, Library Resources shows readers how to conduct their own newspaper search and highlights other interesting aspects of the pandemic – including a Senate election.

“Looking back at our history helps us put the current pandemic in context,” Mitchell says. “It was surprising to me that some of the same interventions we’re using today were also used a century ago.  Also, some of the challenges we’re facing today are reminiscent of what happened back then, despite a century of advances in health research and technology.”

“Working on this exhibit has been such a unique opportunity as the research I’m doing is so relevant to my own life and everyone I know,” Glauser says. “Though the events of the Spanish Influenza happened over 100 years ago, it’s like I’m doing history in real-time. And the fact that all my work has been done from home really does make it feel like I’m living through 1918.”

Media Contacts

Heidi Brettmarketing and public relations director, J. Willard Marriott Library

Paul Gabrielsenresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
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