By Kate Boyd
If you are at home, like most of us these COVID-19 days, and looking for something to do, try a search in the South Carolina Historical Newspapers (SCHN) to see how past generations coped with similar situations. Better yet, focus the search on your city or county and you should find a few articles that might put some of what we are going through into perspective and help us realize that we will get through this. The SCHN repository contains small South Carolina newspapers dating from about 1815 to around the 1950s. I searched for “pandemic” and “influenza” and ordered them by date, starting in 1911.
At the beginning there was not much. A 1907 article from The Ledger (Gaffney City, S.C.), discusses the history of pandemics and notes the Justinian Pandemic in the 6th century and the Black Death in the fourteenth century.
Fast forward to the twentieth century and there is an article in The Horry Herald (Conway, S.C.) from 1911 talking about the Asiatic Cholera which sounded scary and was also rampant in Italy and knocking on New York City’s door. Federal and State agencies worked hard to ensure that it did not spread.
As 1918 arrives, there are a lot more hits. The Spanish Influenza was widespread and after retreating during the summer, returned hard in October. The Library of Congress’s Research Guide can help you find articles on this topic from papers across the country, but many of the articles in the SCHN are only available through our local repository. Some articles are duplicated in different papers and it begins to sound eerily like the present day. For instance, there were rules to not congregate. There were city ordinances to wear masks. Colleges, schools, theaters, and restaurants closed. Sundays were extremely quiet with no one attending church. Newspaper delivery relied on substitutes who did not know the routes; an issue we don’t have now that everything is online. There were many articles from health organizations explaining what is going on and what to do. The Bamberg Herald on October 17, 1918 published an article, which shows up in a few papers, that gives “Uncle Sam’s Advices” stating that coughing and sneezing spreads the disease from person to person.
A year later, The Edgefield Adviser on February 5, 1919 reports that the State Legislature in Columbia tried to take a recess until July, but the Senate voted that idea down. In July of 1919, The Horry Herald reports that a doctor has a cure for the flu! Then, that fall the Lancaster News reports that the flu may come back.
By 1920 the local SC newspapers are turning to other news, but the Abbeville News and Banner published a report from a doctor about Pellagra, a vitamin deficiency, and how it was mostly stamped out in South Carolina. The report made sure to note that the after-affects are much worse than the flu.
In the early 2000’s, if you search through the USC student newspaper, The Gamecock, you find about 20 relevant results on articles about the SARS epidemic, or Bird Flu, that started in China. There is a small article in 2003 about travel bans because of the epidemic. In 2005 and 2006, two articles really touch on some of the similarities that we are living through now. The
article, “Big Ten Universities Analyze Bird Flu Outbreak Possibilities,” is foreboding in what it says could happen on college campuses, and what we are trying to avoid now by staying home. And, in 2006 an article talks about the potential of more viruses jumping from animals or birds to humans.
I find comfort in firsthand accounts of history, like newspaper articles, for they
show that people have dealt with similar issues before, and the stories they tell in the end are quite fascinating. What stories will we be telling? How will life change once this is over? One thing they didn’t have helping them get through the Spanish Influenza is the Internet. We are certainly very fortunate to have that to keep us somewhat sane and connected to not only our friends and family, but our neighbors around the world.