Closures, Masks, and Quarantines: Historiography of Social Distancing and Preventative Measures During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in the U.S.


  • Carol A. Stuart


An oft-forgotten footnote to World War I, the novel and virulent strain of
influenza that swept through the U.S. and around the globe swiftly in fall 1918
has received more recent attention due to late twentieth- and early twentyfirst-century emerging diseases and the centennial anniversary. While the
COVID-19 pandemic just over one hundred years later will likely now spark
even more historical interest, this historiographical paper addresses how
recent scholars treated what social measures U.S. cities and communities took
to help slow the spread of the Great Influenza and how historians interpreted
acceptance and effectiveness of public health mandates. Scholars have shown
how officials missed warning signs or failed to act with enough urgency to
stop or even to slow the virus early, yet still probably saved lives by taking
eventual precautions. Some newer studies also have started to fill the gap
in how marginalized communities like African Americans and Indigenous
peoples were affected, as well as spotlighted smaller towns and various
regions. With parallels to COVID-19, historians will have plenty of opportunity
to compare contemporary actions (and inactions) to the 1918 public health
responses, along with acceptance, resistance, and effectiveness.



2023-06-02 — Updated on 2023-06-14