Dip into some accounts of how hoteliers in 1918 handled the influenza pandemic and you’ll chuckle for sure, but you’ll also feel a deep kinship.
By now you’ve seen the comparisons drawn between today’s COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 influenza pandemic, often called the Spanish flu. It’s sobering on one hand and somehow comforting on the other to realize that people and their human natures don’t change that much throughout generations.
Consider these headlines from 1918 newspapers that proclaim “Open-face sneezers to be arrested,” “Shoo flu from polling booths” and my favorite, “Chardon pins hopes in flu epidemic to cinnamon toothpicks.” (Last two headlines from this fantastic gallery.)
People in 1918 reacted the exact same way, socially and culturally, as we’re reacting now (and yes, there were plenty of “mask slackers” then, too).
I was curious though about how this 1918 pandemic affected hotels, especially in the U.S., where hotels as grand gathering places were coming into their own as people began to resume life following World War 1. Many of the nation’s eminent hotels already had made it through the lean war years, like the original Peabody Hotel in Memphis, the original side-by-side Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and so many others in emerging urban hubs across the nation.
I started looking into how hotels at the time handled the flu pandemic and managed the same issues hoteliers are facing now—housing sick patients, mandating masks and shutting down bars and restaurants.
If there’s comfort to be had in solidarity, readers, I’m here to tell you today that your forefathers and foremothers in the hotel industry faced the same issues then that you’re facing now.
Consider the story of the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., now the Washington Marriott Wardman Park. The hotel was built between 1917 and 1918 as the largest in the city at the time, with 1,200 guestrooms. You’ve probably heard it called “Wardman’s Folly,” a poke at the developer for choosing a site ever-so-far outside the city center. (In today’s ride-sharing currency, that translates to an 18-minute Uber ride from Union Station.)
This hotel opened 12 days after the armistice was signed with Germany to end the war. According to Wikipedia, “no elaborate opening festivities were held, however, as all public gatherings had been made illegal while the city was in the grips of the 1918 flu pandemic.”
Hotel-related headlines from 1918 echo more of the trends we’ve seen here in recent months, particularly the use of hotels to house the sick. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, reported in October 1918 that the “Lion Hotel will house patients with influenza,” and just one day later, the paper’s headlines proclaimed, “Owners object to location of flu hospital.”
Further in that article, we learn of the assertive retort Spokane’s city health officer, Dr. J.B. Anderson, made in reply: “We don’t care a rap what the owners of the building think about it or about us, and we don’t propose to haggle with them over it,” Anderson said. “This is a very serious emergency, and if the owners of the Lion Hotel think they can put a dollar in one side of the scale and a human life in the other, and get away with it, they are very badly mistaken.”
And hotel event planners, if you’re concerned about having to cancel the conferences and trade shows we love so much, heed some caution from your 1918 counterparts! You’ll want to avoid what happened in October 1918, as the Oakland Tribune declared “Epidemic routs convention of 15 hotel men.”
I’ll give you the full text of the small article here, to save your eyes:
Fifteen hotel men from various parts of the state have readjusted their influenza masks, packed their grips and are now speeding homeward. The Northern California Hotel Men’s convention is off. “Influenz Espagnol” did it!
The last attempt of the fifteen delegates who braved the epidemic and came here for the convention to transact business yesterday, at a luncheon at the Key Route Inn. These fifteen, the only ones of 500 expected delegates, were unable to transact anything, and the convention was finally called off. No plans for calling the convention after the epidemic is over have been made.”
Finally, I leave you with another example of how the past is echoing today: In the midst of the flu epidemic in Minnesota in 1918, the St. Paul city government announced all elevators to be shut down, since tight indoor spaces were already targets for flu spread. This didn’t go over well with hoteliers, of course. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that “some of the downtown hotels objected to stopping their elevators, saying that they would lose guests.” This ultimately caused the ruling to be reversed, but only one person per 5 square feet was permitted.
So yes, we can find ways to pull learnings from 1918 out and apply them today. But most importantly, there’s some comfort in solidarity, even over a span of more than 100 years.
They got through it, and you will, too.
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