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CMU Historical Library Tells The Story Of The Media And The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Long before COVID 19 coverage dominated media coverage, newspaper headlines were focusing on another global crisis. Frank Boles, director of the Clarke Historical Library on the campus of Central Michigan University, says information was shared very differently during the 1918 flu pandemic. 

Boles says he’s never seen anything like COVID 19 in his lifetime, but today’s pandemic is not without historic precedence. “We can look back into American history and come up with parallels that at least look very similar,” he explains.

Boles goes on to say that way back in 1918, a strain of influenza, nicknamed the Spanish Flu at the time, was spreading quickly all over the world. Back then, without social media and 24-hour-news keeping people up to date on all the latest developments, print newspapers were the only source of information for people, especially in rural areas of mid and Northern Michigan.

“News spread much more slowly,” Boles explained, “There was no radio. There was no television. Basically, you got your paper, either weekly or daily, depending on what town you lived in; in Mt Pleasant, it was a weekly, and it would have all the news that was fit to print.”

In fact, Michigan newspapers from 1918 archived at the Clarke Historical Library, have a story to tell that could easily be ripped from today’s headlines.

“The U.S. Surgeon General had in fact been issuing warnings that were appearing in the papers that there was a major influenza epidemic, issuing instructions which actually sound very similar to what you’re hearing today from the Center for Disease Control,” Boles said. “They would say avoid crowds. We say ‘social distancing’ but it was pretty much the same idea.”

According to Boles, other details from these turn-of-the century archives sound familiar as well.

“Churches are canceling services. Schools are closed. Various social organizations are saying ‘Nope, nope’…movie theaters are closed. People are being told to self quarantine.”

In Mount Pleasant today, things are eerily quiet as Central Michigan University’s classes are now online for the rest of the semester. In 1918, CMU was already over 25 years old.

“We did not have resident halls back in 1918, but we did have something called the Student Army Training Corps, which is essentially a group of young men who were being trained to serve in World War I,” Boles said. “They were in very close proximity to each other, as soldiers often are, and that possibly was one reason the flu spread so quickly in Mount Pleasant--although

The flu spread quickly in most communities whether or not they had an army training group in it or not.” Boles said the 1918 strain of influenza eventually fizzled out, and humanity settled back into “a new normal.” But by the time it was over, as many as 50 million people had died worldwide. Today, Michigan residents social distancing at home can look to history to learn about our current world situation--and so much more.

“Well, there’s a resource called digmichnews,” Boles said, ‘Dig.mich.news’ stands for “Digital Michigan Newspapers.”

In fact, the Digital Michigan Newspaper website has nearly 500,000 pages of Michigan newspapers with all kinds of stories about life in Michigan throughout history. The Clarke also offers teacher guides and other educational materials. It’s all available at the Clarke Historical Library website.