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Why the 1918 Flu Became 'America's Forgotten Pandemic'

July 7, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

After the deadly pandemic was over, no one really wanted to talk about it—and besides, there was so much else going on.

The , he barely mentioned this important historical event.

“I am not going into the history of the influenza epidemic,” he wrote. “It encircled the world, visited the remotest corners, taking toll of the most robust, sparing neither soldier nor civilian, and flaunting its red flag in the face of science.”

Before 1918, Vaughan and many other doctors were extremely optimistic about their ability to combat disease. Although infectious diseases still accounted for a larger percentage of deaths in the United States than they do today, advances in medicine and sanitation had made doctors and scientists confident that they could one day largely eliminate the threat of these diseases.

The flu pandemic changed all that. “It was, for [Vaughan], a really traumatic event that made him question his profession and what he thought he had known about the possibilities of modern medicine,” says Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

The 1918 flu is conspicuously absent from other doctors’ books, too. Hans Zinsser, who worked for the Army Medical Department during the pandemic, didn’t discuss it in Rats, Lice and History, his 1935 book about the role of disease in history.

“One of the reasons I think that we didn’t talk about the flu for 100 years was that these guys weren’t talking about it,” says Carol R. Byerly, author of Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I. “They would say, ‘we really didn’t have much infectious disease, except for the flu;’ and ‘our camp did very well, except for that flu epidemic.’”

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

Few Personal Stories Were Published

It wasn’t just doctors. No one really wanted to talk or write about what it was like to live through the flu. Newspaper articles about the pandemic didn’t usually describe the personal stories of those who died or survived, says J. Alex Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and one of the editors-in-chief of The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital …read more


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Christopher Columbus: How The Explorer's Legend Grew—and Then Drew Fire

July 7, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

Columbus’s famed voyage was celebrated by Italian-Americans, in particular, as a pathway to their own acceptance in America.


Columbus’s heroic stature was further cemented by Washington Irving’s freely embellished 1828 bestseller, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which launched the popular myth that only Columbus believed the earth was round and stood as the lone voice of reason against medieval Catholic Church authorities.

But starting in the second half of the 19th century, as more Irish and Italians immigrated to America, they embraced Columbus as a pathway to validate their burgeoning communities. San Francisco’s Italian Americans celebrated their first Columbus Day in 1869. In New York City, the earliest evidence of a distinctly Italian American Columbus Day was an event held in 1866, sponsored by a local chapter of the Italian Sharpshooters Association.

And in 1882, a group of Irish Catholic priests founded what’s thought of today as a chiefly Italian American organization, the Knights of Columbus. “It’s a measure of how much respect Columbus had,” says Connell, “that the Irish Catholics saw Columbus as a path to legitimization, just as the Italians would.”

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Christopher Columbus

Flood of immigration sparks anti-Italian violence

A lynch mob in New Orleans breaks into the prison where Italian immigrants were being held, accused of murder in 1891.

The masses of Italian immigrants who began arriving in America in the 1880s stood out from the predominantly Northern Europeans who came before them. Mostly poor farmers escaping starvation in Southern Italy, they had dark complexions, spoke little English and often lived in squalid, overcrowded tenements. They were frequently stereotyped as simple-minded criminals, and the press stoked fears of Southern Italians as all being members of the Sicilian mafia.

Anti-Italian discrimination occasionally engendered brutal acts of violence. In 1891, after the police chief of New Orleans was gunned down in the street, police rounded up 250 Sicilian immigrants without cause, trying nine for murder. After all were acquitted for lack of evidence, a 20,000-person mob organized by the mayor and other prominent New Orleans citizens stormed the prison and killed the nine men, plus two more Sicilians being held on unrelated charges. The mob then strung up the mangled corpses, in what was one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.

“One of the most startling things about the New Orleans …read more


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This New Deal Summer Camp Program Aimed to Help Unemployed Women

July 7, 2020 in History

By Erin Blakemore

About 8,500 women attended the camps inspired by the CCC and organized by Eleanor Roosevelt—but the “She-She-She” program was mocked and eventually abandoned.

During the Great Depression, thousands of unemployed men picked up saws and axes and headed to the woods to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed about 3 million men. But men in the CCC weren’t the only ones to take to the great outdoors on the New Deal’s dime. Between 1934 and 1937, thousands of women attended “She-She-She camps,” a short-lived group of camps designed to support women without jobs.

The program was the brainchild of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wanted an option for the 2 million women who had lost work after the stock market crash of 1929. Like their male counterparts, they looked for work, but stigma against women who worked and women who took government aid made finding a job even more difficult. Many women were forced to seek dwindling private charity or turned to their families. Others became increasingly desperate, living on the streets.

Their plight deeply concerned Roosevelt, who wondered if they might be served by the CCC. The program, which sent men to camps around the country and put them to work doing forestry and conservation jobs, was considered a rousing success. But Roosevelt encountered resistance from her husband’s cabinet, which questioned the propriety of sending women to the woods to work.

READ MORE: 6 Projects the CCC Corps Accomplished: Photos

An Alternative to the CCC

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Camp Tera at Bear Mountain, New York for unemployed women, which was opened at the suggestion of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and herself, in 1933.

Roosevelt turned to Hilda Smith, an educator with a background as a suffragist, social worker and college dean. For years, Smith had taught a free school that brought women workers to Bryn Mawr College, and she was hired by the Works Progress Administration in 1933. She came up with an alternative to the CCC camps that addressed many of the cabinet’s qualms.

Instead of focusing on jobs, the FERA camps would emphasize education and domesticity. The camps Smith envisioned gave women the chance to safely socialize and rest and trained them in things like housekeeping and clerical skills. Instead of putting women to work, they would …read more