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Thanksgiving 1918 took place during a deadly pandemic. What can it teach us for Thanksgiving this year?

By Anthony R. Wood, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

The month before, the so-called Spanish flu was blamed for killing 11,000 in Philadelphia.

The epidemic that ultimately would claim an estimated 675,000 American lives — probably a tremendous underestimate since it didn't include countless deaths involving preexisting conditions — was on fire in the fall of 1918.

Yet on Nov. 28, 1918, the nation celebrated Thanksgiving. Exuberantly.

"Best Thanksgiving in History of City," proclaimed a headline in the New York Sun. Philadelphia, despite a daylong chilly drizzle, was the venue for parades, sporting events, and "flag raisings," The Inquirer reported.

In his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, President Woodrow Wilson didn't even mention the flu, which he later contracted himself.

COVID-19 is casting its long, persistent shadow over Thanksgiving 2020, but for a variety of reasons, the Spanish flu didn't have a similar effect in 1918 on Thanksgiving or the subsequent holidays. That likely had consequences later.

 

"The Great War" had ended two weeks earlier, and as University of Pennsylvania historian David Barnes pointed out, since this was the war to end all wars, World War II wasn't yet a gleam in the national eye. And while the flu was still killing, it appeared to be in retreat.

In the words of historian Kenneth C. Davis, author of the "Don't Know Much About" series, the national attitude was: "We have a lot to be thankful for. The war is over, we're still alive."

He added that by Thanksgiving people were anxious to forget an epidemic that they didn't quite understand in the first place

The coronavirus and the Spanish flu — a misnomer since it might have started in Kansas — appear to have at least one thing in common in that they both induced certain degrees of denial.

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