Gloves and hankies: Lessons from the 1918 flu pandemic


by Pamela Powers Hannley

NOTE: I am re-posting this old story as a public service. There is some nasty shit… flu… out there now. 

If it hadn’t been for the flu pandemic of 1918, I wouldn’t be here.

You see both of my grandparents lost their first spouses to the flu or complications from the flu. Grandma had two sons, and Grandpa had one. After they married in the early 1920s, they had two daughters, my aunt and my Mom. They built an early yours-mine-and-ours family and a 50+ year marriage on the tragedies of the largest pandemic in US history.

According to my Mom, Grandma was relieved that her first husband Charlie didn't have to go to World War I but was devastated when he died from the flu just a few years later. Lessons from the flu stayed with my Grandma her entire life. Learn Grandma's tips after the jump.

For months now we have been hearing scare stories about the coming of the H1N1 flu, also known as the swine flu, and now it’s here. Will 2009 be a repeat of 1918 with an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide?

Wash your hands thoroughly and often appears to be the primary message from the US government, but are there other things you can do?

I believe my Grandma would have some suggestions. Grandma never left home without the gloves on her hands, a hat or scarf on her head, and an embroidered hankie tucked into the waistband of her dress. I always thought this was just her personal style, but when you think about her experiences with the 1918 flu, it’s apparent that her accessories had a purpose.

Gloves. Of course, in the winter, people wear gloves for warmth, but my Grandma wore gloves whenever she went out. She wore them to church and to the store—everywhere she would be meeting people, shaking hands, or touching objects that had been touched by others—faucets, door handles, railings, produce, you name it. Gloves can be both fashionable and functional. Will they be the new fashion statement for 2009? I hope so.

Hats and scarves. Growing up in the 1950s, everyone’s grandma had a collection of little hats for church or fancy occasions. My Grandma was religious about covering her head—hats for church and babushkas (scarves) for everyday wear. When it’s cold out, you lose a lot of body heat through your head. Throw away your vain worries about hat head and wear a hat or a scarf this winter.

Hankies. Grandma had a whole drawer of embroidered hankies to match her cotton gloves of every color. Obviously, hankies can be used to blow your nose, but Grandma also used them every time she coughed or sneezed. The advice these days is to cough into your elbow rather than cough into your hand. Whatever you do, don’t cough or sneeze into the air or into your hand (unless you wash your hands immediately afterward.)

Sharing. Grandma was decidedly not into sharing: don’t drink out of someone else’s glass, use their plate or eating utensil, taste their food, eat or drink out of a container, or even use another family member’s bath towel, hairbrush, or toothbrush. These are especially important for families with small children. Children who are attending school or pre-school are little germ magnets, and they bring these germs home. Protect your family by making it a practice to wash your hands when you come home.

Take a few lessons from Grandma and prevent disease by intervening with potential disease vectors. Wash your hands, wear gloves, cover your head, cover your mouth, and don’t share. And, of course, if you are able, get a flu shot.