How WWI and the Influenza Pandemic Changed Victorian Mourning Practices

The Noble House, where I work as a docent, puts out a bi-annual newsletter, and my boss has asked me to write articles along the theme of whatever our display is each year. We are doing A House in Mourning: Victorian Funerals this year, so last spring, she asked me to write an article about Lincoln, the Civil War, and embalming. This fall, she asked me what I would like to write about, and I suggested the topic of how WWI and the Influenza outbreak affected Victorian mourning practices. I see parallels between then and now.

During the Victorian Era, funerals were elaborate and widows were expected to go into Deep Mourning for the first year and a half, during which they wore black, including a long black veil, and remained confined to their homes. For the next six months, they were in Half Mourning and could wear dark colors and socialize a bit more. This article examines how WWI and the Influenza Pandemic changed all of that. CAUTION: Don’t read this article if you are squeamish!

When the US entered WWI in April 1917, young men were recruited and trained in military camps and training institutions around the country. Fourteen of the largest training camps in the US reported the first wave of influenza between March and May 1918. The virus seemed to be mild, so hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sent in ships to build a combat field of 2 million soldiers in Europe by November 1918. They brought the virus with them.

Several things lead to the second wave of the virus which turned deadly by late summer. Incessant rains and declining temperatures in Europe between 1914 and 1919 contributed to the spread of the virus. WWI saw the industrialization of war including chlorine gas that was used in the battlefield. This may have contributed to the mutation of the virus. As soldiers became sick in the trenches, they were replaced by healthy young men who then became sick. In fact, young adults with no pre-existing conditions were the ones most likely to succumb to the virus. Their skin would turn blue and their lungs would fill with fluid and they would die within a matter of hours or days of pneumonia. It spread to soldiers from other countries who then took it back to their countries.

The severe form arrived in America on August 27, 1918 in Boston with three sick soldiers. Within ten days, there were thousands of sick trainees in that camp. Trainees from across the US were sent to Long Island where they caught ships to France. The virus arrived in Long Island on September 13th and by October 4th, over 6,000 men were sick at Camp Upton. On September 21st, influenza appeared at Camp Grant in Illinois. Camp Grant suffered 10,713 victims and 1,060 deaths out of a population of 40,000. It reached all the training camps within a month. In Europe, the influenza virus killed more soldiers than combat did.

Those Americans who died in battle numbered 70,000 within the first 16 months after the US entered the Great War. 50 million people died of influenza worldwide. In the US, 675,000 died of influenza, 195,000 of them in October alone. In Philadelphia, Dr. William Krusen, the Director of Public Health, tried to downplay the virus and told people that the deaths were caused by the regular flu, so on September 28, 1918, the city held a Liberty Loan parade that was attended by tens of thousands of people. Within ten days, over a thousand citizens were dead and 200,000 were sick. By March 1919, 15,000 were dead and the city closed schools, saloons and theaters. Whole families were wiped out. Entire neighborhoods had black crepe on their doors. Red Cross nurses reported visiting homes where sick people were in bed with dead bodies. Bodies in sheets or sackcloth bags were set out on the front porch or the sidewalk to be picked up by the police and the priests. 30% of American doctors worked for the military, so there was a shortage of doctors in the country, and some of those succumbed to influenza. There were no antibiotics, so doctors were helpless to fight the pandemic. Some doctors prescribed up to 30 grams of aspirin per day for those who were infected, enough to give them aspirin poisoning. The symptoms of aspirin poisoning include hyperventilation and pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) which also caused or hastened death. Bodies were sent to cold storage plants to be kept until they could be buried. Burials were backlogged with coffins being stacked in piles. Coffins were in short supply due, in part, to soldiers being killed in the war, so in Boston, the gravediggers were dumping the bodies out into the grave and reusing the casket. The poor and the immigrants were buried in mass graves dug by steam shovels. There weren’t enough grave diggers because they either got ill or they were afraid of getting ill. Families often had to bury their own dead, and in hard-hit areas, prisoners, city employees, and soldiers were conscripted to dig graves. In late September 1918, the government banned public gatherings including funerals and wakes in places like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Iowa. Only the immediate family could attend a short graveside ceremony, and at that, the casket was to remain closed. For families who had a soldier die in battle, they often had no body to bury. Fallen soldiers in Europe were usually buried there and sometimes bodies were blown apart beyond recognition and put in mass graves. Monuments with lists of names had to suffice for bringing closure to the grieving families.

By 1917, some people had already shortened the mourning period for a widow to 1 year. Their seclusion period was shortened to 3 or 4 months or less. 1917 to 1921 were lean years of going without because so many businesses and factories had to close due to a lack of staff. Farm crops languished with no one to harvest them. The economy had been hit hard so expensive funerals became abhorrent. Women were the major objectors to old-fashioned funeral customs. An article in the El Paso Herald newspaper on June 22, 1917, said that families who were solvent became insolvent after spending money on a traditional funeral. It was more expensive to die than to live, according to the article.

The British Rational Dress Society had already tried, in an 1889 article in the New York Times, to encourage widows to wear everyday clothing rather than purchasing specific mourning garb for health reasons. They reported that women were getting headaches wearing long veils because the veils weighed their heads backward or downward. However, it wasn’t until Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Suffrage Association, and the first choice of President Wilson for the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense recommended the Gold Star program to him and fashions began to change. Woodrow Wilson was afraid that he and the war were losing popularity, so he backed Dr. Shaw when she proposed that families of soldiers fallen in battle wear a black band with a gold star rather than black mourning clothes. Women were told that wearing black demoralized and depressed soldiers and that it was their patriotic duty to focus on “newer heroism” for those who fell in battle. This could include those who died of influenza in the military. Women were encouraged to take pride in their son’s departure for war and to display the courage and spirit of the soldiers who gave their lives for their country. They were to celebrate an honorable death. In exchange for wearing ordinary clothing when a son died in battle, the government would issue a Gold Star Mother band to set them apart from those who were grieving the natural death of a loved one. For any other death, black was still worn for a period but it wasn’t like deep mourning. Long veils of crepe were exchanged for veils of net or silk.

The war ended with Armistice on November 11, 1918. The deadliest round of influenza ended in January 1919. There was a third round of influenza during the winter and spring of 1919 that finally subsided during the summer. By then, people had either died of influenza or developed immunity to it. The Victorian practices of lengthy mourning and expensive funerals had come to an end and widows were relieved that they had!

One thought on “How WWI and the Influenza Pandemic Changed Victorian Mourning Practices

  1. I’ve seen widows wearing various widow garb in movies that were in similar times. This explains a lot.
    I also saw people wearing masks in a stadium at a sporting event around this time. I don’t think I was aware of these masks until recently.

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