Flu Masks and Onions: Wacky Cures and Remedies During the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

Between 1918 and early 1919, Spanish influenza became the deadliest plague since the Black Death of the Middle Ages. 

The Spanish flu took the lives of healthy young individuals including pregnant women, children and American soldiers during World War I.  The deadly influenza killed more Americans than World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. The furious waves of the flu swept across America killing 675,000 people.

In 1918, there were no electron microscopes used for viewing tiny virus microorganisms.  If scientists had been able to identify and analyze the virus, a vaccine might have been developed to protect the world from a future pandemic.  Germs come in two distinct varieties: bacteria and viruses.  Bacteria are simple, single-cell microorganisms that live in soil, water, plants, animals and any organic matter.  Their genetic material is DNA, and they can reproduce by themselves and most do not cause disease. 

Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and are unable to live on their own and cannot reproduce themselves.  They can only reproduce by invading the living cells of another organism and incorporate their own genetic material, influencing the host cell into making more of the virus.  These types of viruses are extremely contagious and are often spread by hand to mouth contact or coughing passing the virus in tiny micro-droplets through saliva or mucus. 

The 1918 influenza victims suffered from symptoms such as labored breathing, crackling sounds coming from the lungs, coughing up blood, bleeding from the nose or mouth, delirium, sleeplessness, and a bizarre blue-black or mahogany marks on the skin.  A distinctive odor was also detected from victims with a smell like a very pungent musty straw.

Cincinnati Board of Health Streetcar Sign – Cincinnati, Ohio 1918

Where did it come from?  Researchers are still not sure how the Spanish Influenza began.  But the first signs of the flu began in Haskell County, Kansas among the farming communities where people lived close to many farm animals.  Some researchers think that the Spanish Influenza pandemic may have come from infected pigs, birds and horses which then adapted to infect humans.  At one point, rumors spread that the pandemic was blamed on German spies.  The Germans had been known to start epidemics in Europe by poisoning wells in France and most American newspapers printed the story.  “Let the curse be called the German plague,” stated Alfred Brooks’ editorial in the New York Times. Germs of deadly diseases had been found stored by the German government in Bucharest. 

During the pandemic, panic stricken consumers flocked to druggist to purchase a variety of medications and tonics desperately trying to find a cure for influenza.

Bayer aspirin tablets were tested for poison to disprove the popular rumor that the German product was poisoning users with flu germs.  Other rumors blamed the pandemic on poisonous gas used on the battlefields of Europe.  Religious affiliations attributed the pandemic to God’s direct action as a punishment for their sins.  Other’s felt the pandemic was a divine purpose to end the war. 

Despite the absence of a cure or vaccine, most everyone had an undeniable way of curing the Spanish influenza.  As the death toll mounted and hysteria overcame communities, a host of absurd flu treatments and home remedies began to develop. Some doctors prescribed fresh air and sunshine because fewer people caught the virus in outdoor structures.  Most doctors advised flu patients to stay in bed, keep warm, drink plenty of fluids, eat a healthy diet and take aspirin.  Millions of flyers and pamphlets employed by the Public Health Service were distributed relaying sensible advice to the public. But the advice fell on deaf ears and did not dispel rampant rumors of special flu curatives. 

Newspaper clipping from the El Paso Herald – October 25, 1918

In the Midwest, victims curled up with their bottles of whiskey.  The West Coast made flannel bags containing bitter plant wormwood soaked in vinegar to apply to the chest.  Some doctors prescribed rinsing the mouth out with lime water and inhaling hot water with turpentine fumes.  One crazy remedy from Dr Charles Page of Boston stated in the New York Herald that the flu was caused by excessive clothing and proposed to just go naked.  Dr Page stated, “The skin is a true breathing organ; its millions of blood vessels are forever gasping for air under even the lightest of drapery.”   

A woman from Pasadena, California used a combination of alcohol and chloroform.  Now that was a knockout elixir! Dr Alexander Leeds of Chickasha, Oklahoma announced that the Spanish flu could be cured by removing the patient’s tonsils and teeth.  Other remedies were to stop shaving, wear fresh pajamas, take castor oil, don’t take castor oil, exercise, eat ice cream, and avoid sugar.  So much information poured into households faster than flu patients submerged into their hospital beds.

Newspaper clipping from The San Francisco Examiner – October 30, 1918

A Pennsylvania housewife served massive amounts of onions to her family in which all eight members of her family avoided contracting the Spanish flu. Desperate people adopted all kinds of wacky remedies.  Mothers sent their children to school with cloth bags filled with camphor and insect repellant inside their pockets and around their necks.  Many cities mandated gauze facial coverings that resembled surgical masks worn by doctors.  Many doctors and medical researchers believed that the use of facial coverings was absurd.  Snake oil salesmen were selling bottles of a Spanish flu concoction called “Grippura” to customers while making tons of profit. From tying a cucumber to their ankles to carrying a potato in their pocket, people became desperate to adopt all kinds of wacky home remedies.

School children wearing cloth bags of camphor and insect repellant around their necks to avoid the Spanish Influenza in 1918.

As fear spread during the peak of the pandemic, violence and vigilantism flourished.  Laws grew extraordinarily strict in cities with high cases of the infection.  Flu masks were used more by criminals than by law-abiding citizens.  In Chicago, landlords turned the heat off after tenants could not pay their rent due to the illness.  Due to the extreme cold, some of their tenants died and the landlords were charged with murder.  New York City doctors were fined when they failed to report flu cases to public health authorities.  People were arrested for spitting in public and the new enemy became the “open faced sneezer or cougher” who refused to wear facial coverings.  Shop owners inflated their prices on quinine and aspirin. 

Two women disinfecting the sidewalk after people disregarded the sign during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic.

President Woodrow Wilson fell ill from the flu during the Paris Peace Conference. The most popular man in the world was stricken with convulsive cough, a fever of 103 degrees, and difficulty breathing. Historians believe that the flu permanently weakened the president after he began to act strangely following his recovery.  Wilson’s personal physician felt that influenza was one of the factors that contributed to his downfall when he suffered a major stroke.  President Wilson was forced to retire from public activity and disabled him for the remainder of his life.

President Woodrow Wilson attending the Paris Peace Conference on December 25, 1918.

As the Spanish flu began to die out, many American businesses such as theaters, saloons, shops and schools were opening again as fewer people fell ill.  By Armistice Day, many carried on with celebrations in the belief that they had been liberated from both the terrors of war and the ravages of the Spanish flu.  Americans paraded the streets, danced and kissed one another choosing to defy the public health rules.  People began to trust one another again and wanted to reconnect with their neighbors instead of fearing they were a potential infector. 

Armistice Day in New York City – Americans celebrated the end of World War I on November 11, 1918 and scenes like this played out across the country creating a third wave of the pandemic.

In the days that immediately followed the celebrations on the East Coast, the Spanish influenza exploded.  Hundreds of victims overflowed hospitals and emergency hospitals were opened in state armories and churches.  There were shortages of coffins, embalmers and gravediggers.  Cemetery owners charged burial fees and forced the families of the victims to dig the graves themselves. In San Francisco, however, Armistice Day was celebrated with widely enthusiastic crowds swirled up and down Market Street. Every ecstatic celebrant was surrealistically swathed in a white mask. And the masks seemed to work. San Franciscans obeyed the public health rules and did not have any significant infections. The total of flu cases and deaths in San Francisco was far below what had been predicted on the basis of experience on the East Coast.

Today, medical researchers and historians can look back on the Spanish influenza crisis that occurred in the autumn of 1918 and recognize that any major social upheaval served as a breeding ground for mass infection.  The First World War contributed to the cause of the Spanish influenza’s lethal success with urban overcrowding, crowded ships and trains, overcrowded hospitals and refugee camps infecting large numbers allowing the virus to mutate and strengthen.  While the pandemic continued to wreak havoc, the cause of the disease remained a mystery.  Proven medical treatments didn’t exist. 

While researchers tried to find a cure, public health officials tried to stop the spread of the virus.  Some of their techniques such as washing hands, sterilizing eating and drinking utensils, wearing facial coverings and quarantining the infected were all thanks to the pioneering inventions of Jan Mikulicz-Radecki. 

The invention of the surgical face mask began in 1897 when Jan Mikulicz-Radecki, a world-renowned Polish surgeon, began using a piece of gauze tied by two strings to his cap to cover his nose, beard and mouth. Radecki had worked with Carl Flugge, a bacteriologist, who had shown experimentally that respiratory droplets carried culturable bacteria. In response to his findings, Mikulicz started wearing a facial covering during surgery to control infection and to keep germs away. Today, Radecki is known as the pioneer of medicine for his inventions of new operating techniques and tools. He was also the first surgeon to use gloves.

Jan Mikulicz-Radecki, Pioneer of modern medicine.

In addition, other measures such as closing schools, theaters, pool halls and churches were all proven techniques for slowing the spread of the virus.  In San Francisco, city officials fought the spread of the flu by advocating gauze mask as 99 percent effective using the slogan: “Obey the laws, And wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws.”

Cañon City had low death rates compared to the rest of the state of Colorado during the 1918 pandemic. This was helped by taking precautions such as no public gatherings very early on and schools were closed. Homework assignments were mailed to the students. The only students who returned to school were the seniors so they could graduate on time.

Senior Class of 1919 – Cañon City High School; (Source: CCHS 1919 Yearbook at Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center)

By the summer of 1919, the Spanish Influenza had disappeared completely.  After the pandemic ended, scientists continued to study influenza.  The first breakthrough came in 1933 when researchers discovered that influenza was a virus.  The first flu vaccine was created in 1944. For most people, the flu presents a few days of misery. But occasionally it turns into a killer pandemic such as the recent COVID-19 crisis. What is the lesson we can learn from the 1918 pandemic? Maybe we should pay more attention from the recommendations of top health officials instead of letting history repeat itself. No one wants to be a pandemic statistic.


  • Porter, Katherine Ann. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. New York: Random House, 1936
  • Levine, Arnold J. Viruses. New York: Scientific American Library, 1992
  • Harvey, Oscar Jewell. The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918. US National Library of Medicine, 1920
  • Aronson, Virginia. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
  • Ewald, Paul W. Evolution of Infectious Disease. Oxford University Press, 1993
  • Hoehling, Adolph. The Great Epidemic. Brown Little, 1961
  • Journal of American Medical Association, Issue: September 1918
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – www.cdc.gov
  • Newspapers.com

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Hope Thompson
Hope Thompson

Hope Thompson is the editor and publisher of Unmasked History Magazine. She has been a freelance journalist for seven years and has published articles for popular media websites such as CandidSlice.com. Her focus has been on the hidden history, Native American culture, Appalachian and Southern folklore traditions.

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