Not long before Christmas, as the pandemic was taking a devastating toll in rural Iowa, Rebecca Tinti was visiting some neighbors who had fallen ill.
At the family’s farm, she found seven of them, including a newborn baby, bedridden with sickness, leaving a 6-year-old girl to take care of everyone else.
Tinti stepped in to help, but she couldn’t avert tragedy.
“The mister had been waiting on the rest till he had a relapse and kept on getting worse, till he died a week later,” she wrote in a letter dated January 1919. “I stayed till the funeral, which was the day before Christmas.”
Tinti’s letters are now in the hands of her goddaughter’s daughter Ruth M. Lux, 72, of Lidderdale, Iowa. Lux has dozens of old family letters, which were passed down from her mother and her grandmother.
“I call my house the Lidderdale branch of the National Archives,” she said.
Those letters — updates about corn harvests and slaughtered hogs, interspersed with reports of illness and death — are dispatches from the domestic front of a pandemic in which millions of Americans were sickened and 675,000 died, among at least 50 million deaths worldwide. It has been attributed to an H1N1 virus that originated in birds.
That pandemic, like the coronavirus today, seemed to roll across the United States in waves. The winter holidays in 1918 were marked by grievous loss. They came during a relative lull after the deadliest wave, in the fall. Another, smaller surge would peak shortly after New Year’s Day.
But the national conversation around private family gatherings appeared to have been less charged in 1918 than it is today, as many weary from months of restrictions bristle at guidance from health agencies to stay home.
“Hundreds of thousands of people lost loved ones,” said J. Alexander Navarro, a medical historian at the University of Michigan and an editor of the online Influenza Encyclopedia. “But by the time of Thanksgiving, there really wasn’t much debate about whether or not they should get together.”
So they did, often with an empty chair at the table.
At the time, another major event was stealing newspaper headlines: the end of World War I. Soldiers were returning to their homes, and the Allied victory was a cause for celebration.
“This year we have special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice,” President Woodrow Wilson said in a Thanksgiving proclamation, which did not mention the pandemic. “God has in His good pleasure given us peace.”
And although soldiers’ domestic and international travels played a major part in spreading the flu, news reports from the time suggest that the risk of infection did not stop people from celebrating the Allied victory in person.
On Christmas Eve 1918, The New York Times reported that thousands of soldiers would be welcomed into homes in New York City and invited to attend dances and feasts. At one event at the 71st Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in Manhattan, “besides the fun and the dancing there will be 300 pounds of chocolate fudge made by pretty girls, and ever so many pounds of iced cake, mostly made by their mothers,” the report said.
Other celebrations were more subdued. For many people in the United States, the Christmas holiday was centered around the home, said Penne L. Restad, a historian with the University of Texas at Austin who is an expert on holidays.
Holiday travel was less common in 1918 than it is today, in part because families tended to live closer together, Restad said. The practice of dragging an evergreen tree indoors to decorate it was in fashion. So were gifts for children, delivered by Santa Claus.
For many, church services were also a part of the holiday season. And in 1918, Lux’s great-grandmother Caroline Schumacher was sad to miss them.
“I suppose you’ve seen that the town is quarantined,” she said in a letter from Carroll, Iowa, dated Dec. 29. “Don’t know how long it will be closed yet. It is terrible when there is no church. It didn’t seem like Christmas at all.”
Because personal letters relayed the details of daily life, they sometimes preserved pieces of history that the newspapers overlooked, Restad said.
“Domestic culture, and to a large degree consumer culture, is often recorded by women,” she added.
Lux’s family letters, some of which are hard to read because of wispy handwriting or irregular spelling and grammar, were transcribed in 2014 by Julia Evans, who was then studying history at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and now manages museum exhibits.
Newspapers covered the pandemic, too, and reports from across the United States showed a patchwork of officials’ responses to the spread of the influenza.
In Hamilton, Montana, The Ravalli Republican reported that a monthslong, citywide shutdown was lifted in late December 1918 — just in time for churches and movie theaters to open on Christmas Day.
In Lodi, California, “owing to the presence of influenza here, Christmas celebrations have been greatly curtailed, though merchants report a good holiday business,” The Sacramento Bee reported on Christmas Eve. “There will be no municipal tree this year.”
And shortly after Christmas, The Chicago Defender published reports about families who had gathered for family visits or church services across Illinois. The reports were interspersed with notices about people who had fallen ill or died of influenza.
This year, with coronavirus cases rising and health professionals girding for a surge in infections associated with holiday travel, Lux plans to stay home alone on Christmas. But her family letters from a century ago told of gatherings, as well as grave diggings.
“I was for three weeks busy doing the neighbors’ chores and burying the dead,” one relative, John Tinti, wrote in February 1919. “I helped lay away more people this winter than I ever did in all my life. It sure was awful.”
Margaret Hamilton, another relative, wrote that she nearly died herself.
“My heart almost refused to work and my lips and nails were a purplish black,” she said in a March 1919 letter. “Sure almost went over.”
Lux was most impressed with Rebecca Tinti, the great-godmother whose letters told of multiple trips to take care of friends and neighbors who were gravely ill.
“This lady was literally the Florence Nightingale of Adair County,” Lux said.
So on a windy day in April — the same month the global death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 200,000 — Lux traveled about 60 miles from Lidderdale to Casey, Iowa, to see the spot where Tinti was buried almost 90 years ago.
The grave was easy to find, in a small cemetery at the top of a hill.
“I thought, ‘No one has put anything on these graves for decades and decades,’” Lux said.
She laid down a bouquet of silk flowers before driving back home.
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