San Francisco Italian Language Coverage of the 1918 Influenza Outbreak

April 28, 2020 Posted by: David Pelfrey

“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.”
     Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Boccaccio wrote with starkness and compassion of his experience with pandemic and how the plague suddenly shook the foundations of fourteenth century Italy. The process of writing the Decameron spanned the time the Black Death churned through Italy and changed its culture. 

The COVID19 outbreak is in its opening pages in 2020. We do not yet know our Boccaccio. We can try to look for patterns and footprints in the suffering that came before and seek any lessons to be found, ask questions of the past that the present is too confused to answer. 

How did the 1918-19 influenza pandemic change culture in San Francisco or the United States?  

Is collective memory only as durable as the generation that weathered the crisis? American newspaper accounts from the 1918-19 influenza pandemic suggest that when generational events like pandemics fall out of American living memory, the lessons gained are largely forgotten. In the San Francisco Italian language news article from 1918 translated below, the parallels with the current COVID19 pandemic are jolting.

There is a lot of information on the 1918 influenza pandemic but most of the cited sources for the United States are English language accounts and reports. In the early twentieth century the major urban centers affected by the pandemic were strewn with newspapers serving different linguistic and ethnic groups. How does the information presented in the non-English sources compare with the mainstream English language reporting?  

This particular thread explores what San Francisco's Italian community read about the disease and how the pandemic was reported in North Beach. Shedding light on the pandemic seen through the Italian community's eyes offers a window into our National Park's history. Our historic district stood at the western edge of San Francisco's Italian maritime culture. At one level, the history of Italian North Beach is part of the history of Aquatic Park.

The motive is not entirely altruistic on my part. I need to practice my Italian. On that score, keep in mind my command of Italian hovers at high elementary school levels. I reserve the right to correct and take correction from better linguists.  

A linguistic note: Italian is phrasal. English can be but should not always be so. Finding the right balance is an art I do not yet possess.  

Understanding the mentality of writers is important so I offer a window opening onto mine: when I walk around the old Italian waterfront, I miss it. Not because I remember it, I do not, but because it left such a palpable cultural footprint. One wonders where the body went. One feels the weight of historical emptiness but cannot find the mass. The voices do remain, but they are not part of the modern cityscape. They are locked in archives and scanned into bytes of data, a kind of cultural crystallization.

The Italian language newspapers were vibrant and printed daily in San Francisco. The Library of Congress scans are so detailed every typesetting mistake glares at the researcher. Crisp images tease a nose to seek the scent of ink that is not there. The language is northern and Tuscan. The typeface is hot-metal Bembo, unchanged since the fifteenth century and prestigious, but this is North Beach so here and there phrases from Liguria and the south spike the broadsheet. The dialects of Italian spoken in the streets of North Beach were equal to those found on the Italian peninsula itself. We see the photographs of the feluccas and Montereys in their scores and now gone, although the park maintains a replica felucca on display at Hyde Street Pier and our research center offers a wealth of historic photos and other documentation. We still see the names of restaurants and buildings, but they are no longer part of a living Italian landscape. Certainly, this is a body of historical material worthy of resurrection, particularly now as we make our own twenty-first-century journey through the pandemic of COVID19.

This article was published in the Italian language paper L'Italia on the 20th of October 1918, on the third day into San Francisco’s order closing businesses catering to amusements, dancing, and movies.  All public and private schools were closed under the same order.  Religious services were not banned but instructed held in the open air.  The article is haunting to read today. The same concerns ripple across the years: people not heeding medical experts, the need to wear masks, the urgency not to overload medical facilities, the spread of the virus on ships infecting port cities, the concern for what we now call social distancing, and the racism christened in the name Spanish flu.

While eerie and evocative, the article also offers a window into the sociology of Italian North Beach as well as recommendations for individuals to take.  Let me know what you think.

Contro Il Contagio, La Solitudine

Against the Contagion, Isolation
The health situation is serious = 866 new cases of flu in the space of 24 hours = The disease must be fought.

We are in a period in which the Spanish flu has perhaps reached its maximum expansion. Health authorities are alarmed, and the citizenry is also alarmed.

The greatest difficulty in fighting this epidemic does not consist in the insufficient means to oppose it but consists in the ignorance, indifference and selfishness of certain classes that do not give in to the advice of science, who do not submit to the regulations published by it, who believe they can judge the evil with a competence superior to the competence of doctors. 

If these classes did not exist, or if these classes could be made precarious, localized, or circumscribed, by using extremely severe penalties, the expansion of the epidemic could be arrested with the greatest of ease. But, as we said, it is these people who are partly responsible for the spread of the disease.

The health authorities yesterday came to the conclusion that all employees in hotels, "apartment houses", lodging houses, large shops, barbershops, banks and pharmacies must wear face masks. 

The flu therefore shows no sign of decreasing. Yesterday 866 new cases and 13 new deaths were reported. The death toll stood at 83 yesterday. In San Francisco there are now 3455 persons affected by the flu.

Dr. Hassler, head of the city health service, and his assistant nurses, go around with face masks. They have the belief that the mask is the best weapon against the flu infection.
At the Letterman General Hospital in the Presidio, there are 300 influenza cases. Of these, 70 are already suffering from pneumonia. Other cases broke out among the clerks of City Hall yesterday.

The rapid spread of disease prevents the Red Cross Section from responding fully to its duties. 50 percent of the reported cases had to be overlooked by the association due to a shortage of doctors.

Dr. Hassler, speaking about the situation, made the following statement yesterday:

"At present, in view of the seriousness of the flu epidemic, it is impossible to impress upon the population with enough emphasis on the need to take care of yourself when you are affected by the flu and to take all possible precautions.

“Many cases are now turning into pneumonia, which is difficult to cure. People with flu must therefore go to their homes immediately at the first onset of symptoms and stay in bed until the doctor tells them to get up and go out. "

Dr Hassler also said that flu patients should not be taken to the hospital by tram and that there is currently a great need for anti-septic masks.

Via telegraph from Honolulu reporting that on the Japanese steamship Miki Maru three cases of flu broke out followed by death. Those affected contracted the infection while they were in San Francisco. The steamer is now in Honolulu and is next headed for Japan.


San Francisco Italians are recommended to strictly observe health regulations. Those who are employed in shops, offices, laboratories or factories will do something useful by wearing the face mask to prevent the flu from being spread to others. The mask is considered a means of utmost utility.

Those who customarily spend their leisure hours outside the house walking, try to be alone and avoid contact with friends and others. This is a sacrifice that must be made for the sake of one's own and others' health.

At the corner of Columbus Ave and Broadway, Italians customarily concentrate and spend the evening chatting. This custom must provisionally cease. The gatherings in the rooms and in the streets are dangerous because it is in there that the disease is communicated from one person to another. The Italians must therefore avoid as far as they are able to stop at street corners. This will be a common good that will benefit them all.

Each person should be provided with Dobell Solution (and a very effective disinfectant water) and with this product rinse the throat, by gargling, and wash the inside of the nose. This should be done at least three times a day.

Cleanliness of the body and clothing is another good multiplier against flu infection. But above all, we repeat, solitude is the best way to protect your health. In idle hours, compatriots be alone and outdoors as much as possible.”


L'Italia. (San Francisco, Calif.), 20 Oct. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.



Last updated: April 28, 2020

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