After spending time isolated or constrained in any way people tend to become impatient and want to break loose. That’s what happened in San Francisco during the “Spanish” flu of 1918, especially as the number of cases began to decline.
It was understandable, especially when World War I ended. Everyone wanted to celebrate. Unlike most U.S. cities, San Francisco – with about 500,000 residents — was a city with a flourishing nightlife. Restaurants remained open throughout, even in October when flu ravaged the city, but the music and dancing that was often featured was banned when the number of cases rose sharply in the middle of October. Solely for the week ending October 26, reported cases had reached 8,682.
Because of the increase in cases, the city ordered all waiters and bartenders to wear masks [see above October 27 advertisement], shortly thereafter urging everyone to wear them. But then the number of cases began to decline. For the week ending November 9 they were down to 2,200. Although that seems like quite a lot, San Franciscans were beginning to relax.
On Armistice Day, November 11, the city went wild. In a story headlined “San Francisco Romps Through Greatest Joyfest World Has Ever Known,” the Chronicle reported that hundreds of thousands had poured into the streets parading with noise makers, spontaneous singing, even improvised costumes. The city lifted the flu ordinance that had canceled music and dancing. But whether they had music or not, restaurants and bars were packed. Glamour spots such as Tait’s, the St. Francis Hotel, and the Palace Hotel [shown above] overflowed as did the non-glamourous eatery Coffee Dan’s.
Oddly enough, it appears that despite the overflow crowds in the streets, bars, and restaurants, a surge in flu cases did not occur. On November 21 the Board of Health authorized the removal of masks with a whistle blast at noon. People drank toasts in hotels and restaurants, while others crowded into ice cream shops. On November 25 the city declared the epidemic officially ended. People planned for Thanksgiving as usual and looked forward to the Christmas season.
But it wasn’t over. With war’s end, troop ships began returning to the city. Among the troops were enough new cases that on December 7 the mayor reinstituted the wearing of masks. This time most people ignored the order. Merchants hoping for a strong shopping season wanted the threat downplayed. The masking order was lifted 11 days later, even as cases continued to rise. On a single day, December 30, 540 new flu cases and 31 related deaths were reported. Then came . . . New Year’s Eve.
As was true on November 11, there was no stopping the celebrations. Packed trains brought revelers from neighboring towns and states where wartime alcohol bans were still in effect. San Francisco’s hotels were booked, its restaurants fully reserved. The next day the Examiner reported that the celebration was the “Greatest in History of Bay Region,” calling it a “Victory New Year’s Eve” with thousands from out of town. It was almost as if “the whole Pacific Coast and interior neighboring states sent their quotas,” said the Examiner. Among the crowds were many thousands of soldiers and sailors. Hotel dining rooms were full. The Palace had three orchestras, as did Tait’s and Techau Tavern, each of which took 1,500 reservations. The States, Portola [1918 advertisement], Solari’s, and the Odeon [1918 advertisement] were also packed and the same was true in the Latin quarter and other neighborhoods. Dancing continued until 5 a.m.
By January 8, 2,969 new cases had been reported just since the start of the new year. Two days later a new masking order was issued by the mayor who told the newspapers, “After San Francisco had successfully stamped it out the infection was brought to us once more by persons coming here from other cities.” It wasn’t until March 1919 that the city’s death rate returned to its usual level.
© Jan Whitaker, 2020