The pandemic of 1918 and Montclair history
Montclair History Center's History at Home
Live on Thursdays. Click programs for more info. All programs are at noon and 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted.
- May 21: Uptown Montclair; Helen Fallon
- May 28: The 1918 Pandemic; Jane Eliasof
- June 4: Montclair Takes to the Skies; Mike Farrelly
- June 11: Making the Scene in NJ; Dewar MacLeod
Password: 778578; Montclairhistory.org
By GWEN OREL
The pandemic of 1918 happened more than 100 years ago.
But when Montclair History Center Executive Director Jane Eliasof began researching its impact on Montclair, she was struck by how little things have changed.
The government told people to wear a mask, and maintain social distancing.
“Everybody keeps saying ‘This is unprecedented,’ but it isn’t,” Eliasof said.
Eliasof will give a Zoom talk about the 1918 pandemic on Thursday, May 28, at noon and 7 p.m. It’s one of several talks MHC has been holding online in its “History at Home” series. Other upcoming events include township historian (and Montclair Local “History & Heritage” columnist) Mike Farrelly talking about Montclair’s ties to aviation history, on Thursday, June 4, and Montclair resident Dewar MacLeod, guitarist for Thee Volatiles and professor at William Paterson University, talking about New Jersey music history.
To look at the impact of the pandemic on Montclair, Eliasof trawled through archival issues of The Montclair Times, on newspapers.com.
She wanted to see the arc of the pandemic from a citizen’s point of view, she said.
At the time, The Montclair Times also covered Verona and Glen Ridge.
The 1918 lockdown was ended early, when World War I ended. On Armistice Day in November, there were parades, picnics, and fireworks, only about four weeks after the shutdown order came through, Eliasof said. “In November, there are ‘Looking in the rear-view mirror’ articles,” she said. “In December, you see an uptick in obituaries again that have flu, or pneumonia related to the flu, mentioned.”
She was surprised to discover that the first wave in the spring, at least according to The Montclair Times, was portrayed as something happening primarily in the military. “It was not something civilians were worried about as an imminent threat to them,” she said.
Also surprising was the lack of editorials and analysis. “Today, you can’t get away from it. You could have gotten away from it back then,” she said.
Eliasof hopes to find something more in the media, even Essex County media in general, to compare and contrast reaction then and now. Getting archival data from the Health Department has been complicated by the shutdown. She has also been looking at the Centers for Disease Control website.
People going out just a few weeks after the shutdown seems inconceivable now, she said. And some other things puzzled her, too. “They would all go down to the Red Cross building to make face masks, instead of making them at home,” she said. “Everybody would have had a sewing machine.” Why would they gather, she wondered?
HISTORY AT HOME
The MHC discussions are both on Zoom, where people can talk to the presenter as well as type questions in the chat box.
For a session on Dionne Ford’s book “Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation,” Ford was able to invite her co-editor, Jill Strauss, to join because of the Zoom format. She also invited several of the essay contributors.
“It was a complete surprise to us!” Eliasof said with a laugh. “I didn’t know they were logging on until 7:05, when all of a sudden their names were there.”
The talks have attracted up to 75 people; in-person talks would usually have about half that.
“We’re also getting people from Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maryland, down the shore,” she said.
Farrelly has come as a participant to other talks, and that has been helpful, too; if the presenter and she don’t know an answer, she just unmutes Farrelly.
“There’s a nice give-and-take,” Eliasof said.
She is creating a PowerPoint presentation with clips from archival newspapers and photos she’s been able to get from the library.
“We will walk through it month by month so you can see it in real time,” she said.
Eliasof noticed that some of the way the pandemic was portrayed was odd: An article about ladies upset they could not take tea cakes to the military camp in Bergen County seemed to be more about the ladies’ pique than the influenza itself, she observed.
One of her biggest takeaways is her impression that people rushed to reopen. “Peoples’ responses were in so many ways the same,” she said. “It’s magnified now, because we’re living through it.”