The advertisers guide to surviving the flu

Written by: Suzanna Wagner, Program Coordinator, Historic Sites and Museums

If a highly contagious epidemic was spreading through your city, what would you do?

Well, if you were a merchant in Edmonton in 1918, you’d be making sure people are still buying things.

A virulent strain of influenza spread around the world in the fall of 1918, striking once again in fall 1919 and still another time in 1920. Alberta saw more than 31,000 cases of the flu over the fall of 1918 with 4,308 deaths before the flu subsided in May 1919. The illness was often referred to as the “Spanish Flu” because it was mistakenly believed to have originated in Spain.

Health authorities and physicians were understandably concerned about spreading the flu and making the epidemic worse than it already was. Steps to limit the chances of spreading the contagion were taken: schools were closed, as were theatres, cinemas and anywhere large crowds gathered—even churches. Retail establishments, however, remained open.

If you wanted to go out in public, you were legally required to wear a mask covering your nose and mouth. The newspaper featured instructions for making your own masks, but many stores also advertised masks for sale. The masks at Kay’s on Jasper Avenue were 10 cents each.

Among all these restrictions, some intrepid merchants saw an advertising opportunity. The Blowey-Henry store reckoned that if folks were not permitted to go to a concert, they would need a phonograph in their homes as a replacement. Then you would need a comfortable chair on which to enjoy your new phonograph. Oh, and bookshelves for all the things you were now going to have time to read. Who knew that a massive epidemic could be a cause to buy furniture?!

Other advertisements focused more directly on avoiding the flu or killing flu germs. A large advertisement advised Edmontonians to, “Fight the ‘Flu with Javel Water.” This product, advertised to contain, “chloride of lime and other disinfectants in proper proportions” cost 15 cents a bottle and would, “disinfect your masks, dishes, clothes, rooms etc.”

This advertisement for Javel even made the rather mysterious claim that your entire house would be disinfected if you left a container of Javel water mixed with hot water sitting out exposed to the air. Source: Peel's Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta.
This advertisement for Javel even made the rather mysterious claim that your entire house would be disinfected if you left a container of Javel water mixed with hot water sitting out exposed to the air. Source: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta.

“Johnstone Walker’s Daily Store News” knew that shoppers might want to avoid entering crowded stores to shop for Christmas or winter clothing, and so they announced shopping by phone: by calling 9266, you could make your purchases over the telephone. Not only could you avoid the hassle and expense of travel, but you would also escape the dangers of catching or spreading flu germs. The advertisement reminded readers that it was their duty to themselves and the whole community to fight against the epidemic, and shopping by phone was part of those dutiful anti-flu combat operations.

The next week Johnstone Walker continued their flu-friendly shopping tips. With only 27 shopping days until Christmas, they pointed out that it was dangerous and irresponsible for people to delay Christmas shopping and urged Edmontonians to shop early: “Our object in urging early gift shopping is to prevent in large numbers the usual dense crowds that assemble in the final weeks of Xmas shopping. It’s humane, it is common sense; it is more—it is a duty on the part of everyone.”

And of course, purveyors of health tonics used the opportunity to encourage sales of their goods. Advertisers for “Dr. Chase’s Nerve Food”  claimed mental and physical strain were causing people to suffer from “lowered vitality,” and that this made them more susceptible to the flu. The intrepid marketers gave an example of how the stresses of the First World War (1914-1918) and the influenza epidemic might be causing lowered vitality:

Conditions brought about by the war have placed many women in positions of unusual responsibility, involving mental strain and anxiety.

Think, for example, of the girls who have been placed in tellers’ wickets in the banks, and whose duty it is to handle each day tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Remember folks: stress strains your nervous system. Especially if you're a woman. This ad does not age well. Source: Peel's Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta.
Remember folks: stress strains your nervous system. Especially if you’re a woman. This ad does not age well. Source: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta.

Clearly a most enterprising, if not particularly scientifically rigorous business, Dr. Chase’s also offered Menthol Bags to combat the flu.

He included instructions on the use of Menthol Bags: “These bags are pinned on the chest outside of the underwear, and the heat from the body causes the menthol fumes to rise and mingle with the air you breathe, thereby killing the germs and protecting you against Spanish influenza and all infectious diseases.”

The Dominion Rubber Company was very concerned with your wet feet. Source: Peel's Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta.

flu-5a
The Dominion Rubber Company was very concerned with your wet feet. Source: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta.

And just in case you thought that having used your phone to purchase your mask, phonograph, armchair, bookshelf, Javel water, nerve food and menthol bag was enough, the Dominion Rubber System added to the list. The company sold rubber covers for shoes and it reminded newspaper readers that with wet shoes one might fall victim to the flu: “Will we have another epidemic of ‘flu’ this spring, as we did last fall? Will people go without rubbers; get their feet wet; take cold; and so lower their vitality that they will become more susceptible to the ravages of influenza?”

Sources:

Advertisement for Blowey-Henry. The Edmonton Bulletin. Oct 19, 1918, p.7.

“Prevent the ‘flu’ by wearing Dr. Chase’s Menthol Bag.” The Edmonton Bulletin. Oct 19, 1918, p.13.

“Unusual Responsibility.” The Edmonton Bulletin. November 4, 1918, p. 7.

“Larvine gets the ‘flu’.” The Edmonton Bulletin. November 11, 1918, p.8.

“Johnstone Walker’s Daily Shopping News.” The Edmonton Bulletin. November 12, 1918, p.6.

“Johnstone Walker’s Daily Store News.” The Edmonton Bulletin. November 23, 1918, p.8.

“Insurance” The Edmonton Bulletin. January 29, 1919, p. 10.

“The Three Big Reasons Why You Should Wear Rubbers in Bad Weather.” The Edmonton Bulletin. February 21, 1919, p. 9.

Humphries, Mark. “War, Public Health, and the 1918 “Spanish” Influenza Pandemic in Alberta.” In The Frontier of Patriotism. Eds. Adriana Davies and Jeff Keshen, University of Calgary Press, 2016.

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