Los Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic: Part 1

Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases October 1918 regarding the flu pandemic
“Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases,” states the graphic used in an informational article published across various newspapers in October 1918

Los Gatos Pandemic Then and Now

Today, Los Gatos is a bustling town of approximately 30,000 people with booming industry including high tech and an ever-expanding medical industry. We face a crisis locally and nationally, and do our part to help halt the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic by sheltering in place, working (or studying) from home, and supporting our essential workers.

The current pandemic has often been compared to the influenza of 1918 – 1920, but a lot has changed over the last 100 years. In 1920, Los Gatos’ total population was 2,317 (less than 10% of the current population) and it had only grown in size by about 85 people over the decade since the prior census! However small, this town has its own tales to tell, so I’ve dug up some history to present to you a retrospective on Los Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza pandemic.

Rolling back the clock, historic documents point to issues with masks and non compliance during the Spanish flu pandemic. Looking through 100+ year old Bay Area newspapers, you can review official city and county documents with numerous paragraphs lamenting the lack of progress on the “Joint Highway District”.  In particular, there are gripes regarding the completion of a state highway between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos which some locals were banking their hopes on during the “disappointing experiences which this country passed through at the time” (Santa Cruz Evening News V 24 #113 Sept 13, 1919). Apparently, getting to the beach was a mood lifter then, too!

Madame Influenza

While work went on in some areas, the flu pandemic hit the South Bay. I couldn’t locate a yearbook for Los Gatos High for the years 1918 or 1919, but San Jose High School students wrote about their experiences in the Bell 1919. Students playfully embraced the chaos in certain passages such as “Friday, Dec. 13 – Madame Influenza has ordered school closed again.” (57) And with a sense of exhaustion in other passages where they described the drawn-out, long days of the second semester to make up for the first semester’s closures (72). We can imagine Los Gatos students had similar experiences (and when school is open again you can read the 1919 yearbooks at the Los Gatos High School Library).

Some families had bigger problems than school closures. Some students contracted the influenza and missed school when it came back in session. Others took care of loved ones, like Los Gatos residents Dr. A. L. Sobey and his wife, who traveled to San Louis Obispo in autumn of 1918 to care for their son (San Louis Obispo Tribune V XLX #27 12 Nov 1918). Another Los Gatos resident, Marino Barbano, contracted the flu and was in danger of losing his life, but saw a turnaround in his condition, which was a heartfelt relief to the author in Italia Feb 1, 1919 written out of Campbell, CA.

Robert Scott
A photo of Robert Scott, likely on his family’s peach ranch, from the Alice Scott Fink Chappell Collection at the Los Gatos Library’s Local History Research database.

Not everyone was able to recover, however. Robert Scott was raised on his family’s peach ranch on National Avenue, close to where Good Samaritan is today, fell victim to the influenza and died at the age of 25 in 1918. Another well known Los Gatos woman passed away in Santa Rosa at the home of her daughter and son-in-law. She came for a visit and quickly became ill, and two others in the household also caught the flu (Press Democrat vol LXV #303 15 April 1919).

Like with today’s pandemic, it’s difficult to know exactly how many people were infected or died from the 1918 virus, though one report through the Mercury News says that “15 residents of the Santa Clara Valley died from the flu and 300 were infected.”

Getting By

While much of the state had face mask ordinances, travel does not seem to have been restricted. Although indoor meetings were not allowed, outdoor gatherings were permitted and fresh air was thought to be too harsh for the virus. Advertisements promoted cough syrups and suggest the pandemic is no worse than the common grippe.

Some were a bit more realistic and to the point. “Influenza is rapidly being curbed, but you can’t curb our WINTER HAT SALE. We need the coin” reads an ad in the Santa Cruz Evening News November 8, 1918. Like today, many small businesses were being negatively impacted by the virus and coming up with creative ways to keep cash flowing during difficult times.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like Los Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic: Part 2
, which will be published soon.

Advertisements during the Influenza Pandemic
Advertisements during the Influenza Pandemic taken from page 5 of the Santa Cruz Evening News on November 8, 1918.

 

Like this bit of history? Check out Part 2 here!