The Dowager’s Diary: Week One Hundred and Eighty-Six

October 1-8, 1918  

“Maude, the maid and Bella, the cook are both in bed with the influenza.” During 1918 there was a deadly epidemic running rampant throughout New York and the rest of the country but on October 1, 1918, Kate Roosevelt seemed more concerned with staffing her household than she did about the sickness sweeping through the city. In just a few days she became a one-woman employment agency. She noted in her diary, “Annie the waitress arrived to take Maude’s place in the dining room. Margaret, the temporary cook arrived to take Bella’s place in the kitchen and I have engaged a nurse, Miss Rosenbaum to take care of the two of them.” Much to her relief, Maude was on the mend, but Bella was still very sick. On October 8th, Kate took her Irish maid to the convalescent hospital. She did not give a name or address of the facility, but it was most likely one of the many in the city that offered charity care to women and girls of “good reputation.”

Department of Public Healthy Bulletin, 1918

Of course, anyone working at the Roosevelt residence on East 30th Street would come with the highest recommendations and adhere to the old adage, “cleanliness is next go godliness”, but even the most fastidious were not immune to the Spanish Flu.

Protection from the Flu

In 1918, most of America was focused on the Great War that was being fought overseas. Wartime reporting took precedence over public health issues until the increase of deaths due to the flu became alarming. The New York City Health Department began trying to figure out why the deadly disease was spreading so quickly. The first mention of the Spanish Influenza was on the front page of their bulletin on August 17, 1918. The article reported that nearly one-third of Spain’s population had experienced the flu, which is how the disease got its name, even though it did not originate there. Medical research could not pinpoint what caused the flu, but ships, sailors and soldiers passing through the ports of New York City were good suspects as well as the unforgiving summer heat. On August 6, 1918, temperatures reached 106 degrees in the shade. Some speculated that Bayer aspirin was the culprit. According to the Public Health Bulletin, the rumor was that the aspirin tablets contained influenza germs and some slow poison. The Health Department conducted laboratory tests of aspirin randomly purchased from locations throughout the city and nothing irregular was found.

Using handkerchiefs helped prevent the spread of the flu

Whatever the cause, stopping it to spread was the key to curtailing its devastation. New York City Health Department sent out leaflets to 900,000 public and private school students, urging them to use handkerchiefs to cover-up their coughs and sneezes and to stay out of crowds. City workers and office stenographers wore gauze masks as protection.

Visiting Nurses using tenement rooftops instead of stairs

Visiting nurses, under the direction of the Henry House Settlement founder, Lillian Wald, made house calls to the sick living in the tenements, often using rooftops to go from apartment to apartment rather than be exposed to unsanitary halls and stairways.

Some residences were under quarantine. Maybe that was why Kate Roosevelt was so eager to hustle her malingering maid, Bella, off to the hospital. Given Kate’s busy schedule, having to stay put would have proven quite an inconvenience for the over-booked socialite.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

On WAT-CAST, listen to Sharon talk about the series.

Photo One:
Tenement Scene of sickness, 1918
The Atlantic

Photo Two:
Department of Public Healthy Bulletin, 1918
NYC Municipal Library

Photo Three:
Protection from the flu
Library of Congress 1918

Photo Four:
Using handkerchiefs helped prevent the spread of the flu
NYC Municipal Library

Photo Five:
Visiting Nurses using tenement rooftops instead of stairs
Library of Congress