The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918

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The flu epidemic of 2018 is being compared in many ways to the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918.  An exhibit in the Country Doctor’s Office at the Carl J. McEwen Historic Village details some of the similarities that still exist, 100 years later, including a newspaper article giving instructions for making a face mask to keep from spreading the disease. The instructions in the 1918 article told how to cut fabric into 6” squares and tie strings at the corners to create a mask. On a recent trip to a local hospital I was greeted at the door with someone giving out disposable mask which were also available outside the rooms of the patients along with disposable latex gloves.  Other methods of quarantine and prevention on exhibit include a brick imprinted with the words “Don’t spit on the Sidewalk”.

Camp Greene, with some forty to sixty thousand troops, added to the horrors of the epidemic. A framed picture on display shows the encampment when many victims of the influenza died. Supplies and medications for the sick were limited including boxes for burial.  The civilian population suffered the same and were handicapped by the scarcity of doctors, nurses and hospitals to a greater degree than the soldiers.

Also included in the exhibit in the 1880’s Country Doctor’s Office is a large jar of Vicks Vapor Rub.  J. Lunsford Richardson, a Greensboro pharmacist, concocted a “pneumonia grease”

to be used as a poultice to relieve the distress of colds and “afford relief for difficult breathing” in the late 1880’s.  During the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, Vicks VapoRub became a household name throughout the United States and sales shot up from $600,000 to $3 million.  Today it remains one of the leading cough and cold treatments.

The exhibit also includes the records of caskets sold by the McEwen Funeral Home. Johnson McEwen was a cabinet maker in the Mint Hill area who made coffins for neighbors, friends, and family when asked.  It was during the flu epidemic that Johnson and his son Carl had to accelerate the production of coffins and funeral services. Numerous funeral homes bear the McEwen name today and the Ellington Funeral Home in Charlotte is still owned and operated by Carl McEwen’s great grandson.

Many people lost loved ones during the 1918-19 flu epidemic.  My husband’s mother lost two young siblings ages 3 and 4 years of age.  They died one day apart. Only his mother, who was 8 years old, and her father could attend the funeral.  The other children had the flu. Not many people today worry about getting the flu or dying from it. Health care is much better than it was in 1918.  Most people get a flu vaccine every year to ward off the disease. Perhaps we will never again see an epidemic like the one of 1918.

To visit the exhibit at the Carl J. McEwen Historic Village in Mint Hill call (704) 573-0726 to schedule an appointment or visit the village during Discover Mint Hill on May 5, 2018.

Becky Griffin

Executive Director

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