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When The 1918 Flu Pandemic Canceled Halloween, Missouri Got Creative

Members of the St. Louis (Missouri) Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the global influenza pandemic, October 1918.
Library of Congress
GPA Photo Archive
Members of the Red Cross Motor Corps on duty in St. Louis during the global influenza pandemic in October 1918.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected numerous holidays in the United States already this year, and next on the chopping block is Halloween. It’s a familiar tale: In 1918, Halloween was officially canceled due to the flu pandemic. The Oct. 31, 1918, edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat declared: “Even the spirits must respect the influenza ban.”

That fall marked the second and worst wave of the 1918 flu pandemic. The mortality rate was higher than that of the ongoing coronavirus spread and significantly higher than a normal flu's. The Missouri State Board of Health warned against public gatherings, and that included some holiday parties.

So how did Missourians observe the holiday during those trying times of restrictions and mandates?

Carolyn Orbann came across examples in letters and newspapers while researching the 1918 pandemic. She is an associate teaching professor in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“People [were] negotiating with the pandemic in general, over the course of that fall, in their own ways,” she said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Some people express a lot more fear about getting sick. Some people are more concerned about people that they know, or the soldiers overseas, because this is all happening in the context of World War I.”

Locals got around public gathering restrictions by hosting house parties. Orbann pointed to a letter from a young woman to her brother in Aurora, Missouri, as an example.

“She desperately wanted to have a Halloween party. And her mother told her to go and ask the authorities in town,” Orbann said.

The Aurorian described asking the town’s sheriff and doctor, who cautioned against a party. But she concluded: “Well, there was to be other parties in town, and they didn't ask, so we went right ahead on with our plans.”

“Halloween is a way for us to kind of get into the mood for the winter season to come. It's a way to let out that nervous energy — if you're thinking about the pranks, it lets off a little bit of steam.”
Carolyn Orbann

It was commonplace to post about the bonfire parties in the local newspaper’s society column.

Orbann read another Missouri example, from LaPata: “Halloween masquerade party given at the home of Ms. Nellie Minor last Thursday. A large crowd was present and all went masked. Delicious refreshments served in a good time by all.”

Those masks weren’t just costume masks but likely masks to prevent the spread of the flu as well, Orbann added.

“The University of Missouri published something in the Evening Missourian October 31 … and they had a mask mandate for students,” she explained. She quoted from the paper: “The University of Missouri, and generations to come, will go the honor of being the first school to order the celebration of All Saints Eve by the wearing of masks.” She added, “So I'm assuming that means flu masks.”

Such experiences might hit too close to home for Missourians disappointed with this year’s Halloween festivities. But Orbann encouraged listeners to look for ways to honor the spirit of the holiday without creating conditions likely to spread the coronavirus.

“Human societies all over the world mark the passage of time and mark the passage of their lives through rituals, and those rituals have specific meanings,” she said. “Halloween is a way for us to kind of get into the mood for the winter season to come. It's a way to let out that nervous energy — if you're thinking about the pranks, it lets off a little bit of steam.”

St. Louis on the Air listener David Wise shared that his family has found a way to celebrate Halloween in St. Louis County.

“Our family is not going trick-or-treating,” he said. “The kids are dressed up in costumes and we’ll have candy for them at our own home. I am going to leave some candy bagged up individual sandwich bags on our front porch, in case anyone comes by our house to trick-or-treat.”

For Orbann, creativity is key. “My perspective is generally to try to adapt it,” she said. “What is the need that Halloween is serving? And how can we build a holiday in these conditions, in this climate, that will meet that need?”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
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