Editor’s note: This blog post is small taste of a recent article by Suzanna Wagner: “Households Large and Small: Healthcare Civilians and the Prominence of Women’s Work in the Edmonton Bulletin’s Reporting of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic” published in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association (vol. 32, no.2, 2022). Published with permission of the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.
The banner image above is of Oliver School in Edmonton, which served as one of the headquarters for neighbourly help. The blackboard here listed names of women who were willing to take in children whose parents were ill, and the kitchens in the home economics department cooked soup to send out by automobile to households with the flu. Image courtesy of Prairie Postcards Collection, Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Written by: Suzanna Wagner
March is Women’s History Month. What does that mean? What’s unique about women’s history? Isn’t it just regular history, but about women? Well, sort of. Studying the experiences of women in the past has some specific challenges: the ordinary parts of historical women’s lives have a tendency to get ignored, glossed over or just plain forgotten. Why? Often, it is because there are few records that preserved the everyday realities of women’s work and lives. Other times it’s because the everyday substance of historical women’s lives was considered unimportant, uninteresting or inconsequential and not worth examining closely.
And yet, when we dive deeply into the history of the 1918 influenza epidemic in Edmonton, we see not just how desperately important “women’s work” was, but how, in a rare historical moment, the details of women’s work were carefully recorded and published in the newspaper.
In Edmonton, as in countless other places across the province, the fall of 1918 brought a virulent and highly contagious flu variant that spread like wildfire through the city. In the railway neighbourhood of Calder, for instance, the newspaper reported, “that at the peak of the epidemic no less than ninety-eight families were quarantined for influenza and that in many cases every person in the household, numbering from six to eight was down with the disease, the magnitude of the problem to be dealt with will be appreciated.” At this point, it was still relatively common for the sick to be cared for at home by family members or perhaps, if they were well enough off, by a hired private nurse. Hospital care was less common, and there certainly wasn’t enough space or anywhere close to enough staff to look after hundreds of epidemic victims.
When this many people got sick at once, it created a host of practical problems. Was there anyone well enough to make food? Look after small children whose parents were ill? Do the laundry that sick, feverish family members produced? Shovel coal into the furnace to keep the house warm? Nurse the sick? Making matters worse was the fact that it was the otherwise young and healthy people ages 25-45 who were most likely to get sick and die.
The Edmonton Bulletin newspaper wrote about the problems households were having coping with daily work necessary for survival. Households, as described by the newspaper, and as they existed in reality, were not just nuclear families: rather they were “functional labour units” made up of both people who were related and of lodgers and servants. It was not uncommon for middle and upper-class homes in Edmonton to employ a maid, who usually lived in. Even less well-to-do homes might have members who lived and worked there as a “mother’s helper” or as a hired man of some sort.
Households across the city were having problems getting their domestic work done. Low estimates indicate that between October 18 and December 31, more than 10 per cent of Edmonton’s population of 60,000 became sick. The Medical Health Officer believed that in addition to those cases of the flu reported to him, there were “many hundreds of additional cases” which did not get reported.
Providing neighbourly help
The sudden, and desperate need for basic, practical and every-day domestic work around the house propelled women’s usually invisible work onto the front pages of the newspaper. For weeks, the vital nature of this work, and how the city’s households were managing it, was described in great detail. Newspaper stories highlighted in agonizing detail the dire consequences if this domestic work was left undone.
“Pitiful tales come from different homes where there is real need of some one to split a little wood or so on” reported one article. A headline from November 26 reminded readers that children and infants could be left alone as illness incapacitated or killed their parents: “Smokeless Chimney led Neighbor to Make enquires- found mother dying- though bachelor, he tended little ones well until assistance came.”
An army of women stepped into this city-wide need for help to keep Edmonton’s households running. For the purposes of “providing neighbourly help” throughout the city in an organized and efficient manner, the city’s clergy and mayor had divided the city into 15 districts, each with a school as the headquarters for the distribution of household help.
People in need throughout Edmonton could telephone the district headquarters closest to their home and ask for all sorts of help. The neighbourly help provided through McKay Avenue school was typical of all 15 districts:
“Were nurses needed to care for stricken ones, they were forthcoming. Was help needed to carry on domestic establishments where the heads of family were down with the ‘flu, it came at once. Were babies to be tended, meals cooked, rooms swept, bed made, fires lighted, ashes carried out, medicines brought, errands run, not sooner suggested than done. It has been an unfailing help.”
Women poured into these headquarters to donate food, clothing and hours of sewing skills. They offered their services to cook meals for the sick and the nurses who cared for them, they cleaned homes, did dishes, organized laundry services and took into their own homes children whose parents were too sick to care for them.
The quantity of items produced and donated by the women of Edmonton’s Red Cross Society alone is astounding. At a time when the average soldier’s wage was $1.10/day, nearly $6,000 worth of linens and sewing (almost $100,000 today) were distributed in the first month of the epidemic. The monetary valuation of these donations serves to underscore the scale on which women of Edmonton responded to the calls to participate in flu relief efforts.
One of the most significant challenges confronting Edmonton’s households was the laundry problem. Anything which may have come into contact with flu germs needed to be carefully washed. This meant a large volume of linens including bedsheets, handkerchiefs, towels and anything into which the patient may have coughed, as well as the masks which all people were required to wear outside their homes and when tending to the sick. In an era before modern washing machines, dealing with laundry was a significant chore, even without the added pressure and fear of influenza germs.
The city authorities and the Salvation Army made arrangements to take care both of patients’ and nurses’ laundry. Patients were responsible for paying for their own laundry services unless they were considered to be in distress. But almost two weeks before the city announced it had organized these laundry services, a laundry had already been established by women volunteers in the basement of Wesley church. They started work on November 2, and the newspaper reported that the first bag of laundry was, “a welcome sight to the family on 116 street, where the mother is in bed and the little eleven-year-old girl is doing the work.”
Normally laundry is a silent chore—we all do it, but we don’t talk about it. Suddenly though, the flu brought the importance of laundry work to the front of people’s minds, and into the city newspapers. There was no “laundry beat” in the papers before or after the flu. This is one example of many that show how work that was mundane and unrecognized before the pandemic became a crucial part of the grassroots work to fight the pandemic.
Most of the women who participated in these district neighbourly help organizations are believed to have been Anglo-Canadian members of the middle or upper classes of Edmonton’s population. These women were connected with the organizers of the district system and generally had some time available to donate to the cause. Women who were part of minority ethnic groups or working-class neighbourhoods would likely have had less time to offer in district volunteer efforts but would also have felt the burden of domestic labour and sick care for their households. Undoubtedly they also helped their own friends and neighbours, even if the newspaper doesn’t report the details. Even when some women’s experiences are recorded in more detail than normal, others remain hidden.
The Edmonton Bulletin didn’t dwell on personal tragedies caused by the flu, but it can nevertheless be found in such brief statements as: “Mrs. Stanley Clark died Tuesday morning at… the age of 25 years. A husband and a little boy two months old are left to mourn her loss” or “James Lee, aged 6 years, died at his home… late Thursday night. He is brother to Catherine Lee whose death was recorded Thursday.”
As the crisis slowly subsided, Edmonton’s city council issued a resolution of thanks to the great many people who helped their neighbours- both women and men:
“To those others who have worked cheerfully and unceasingly at the tasks assigned, whether managing a department, doing clerical work, washing dishes, running errands, or stoking fires, and generally to all generous citizens and good neighbours, who, whether through the organization or independently have come forward in such numbers as to make a record of civic spirit of which the city of Edmonton may well be proud.”
“City Council Passes Resolution,” Edmonton Bulletin, November 27, 1918, p.3.
“The Oliver School Headquarters,” Edmonton Bulletin, November 4, 1918, p. 3.
Oct 28, 1918, p.3
“Edmonton Red Cross Doing Effective Work in Epidemic,” Edmonton Bulletin, November 18, 1918, p.2.
“Relief Work…at McKay Avenue,” Edmonton Bulletin, November 15,1918, p.4.
“City Divided into Districts In Order Better to Fight ‘Flu Epidemic that is Raging,” Edmonton Bulletin, October 28, 1918, p.1.
“Father and Mother Victims of ‘Flu,” Edmonton Bulletin, November 26, 1918, p.3.
Nov 18, 1918, p.3.
“How Nurses and Relief Workers Fought the Epidemic in Calder,” Edmonton Bulletin, November 15,1918, p.3