Disastrous Decisions Impacted Chicago During the 1918 Flu Epidemic

The 1918 flu outbreak, both globally and in Chicago, is the event which most clearly antecedes today’s Coronavirus pandemic. Chicago suffered over 8,000 deaths due to the 1918 influenza epidemic. Many commonly call it the “Spanish flu.” It was one of the worst epidemics in Chicago history. The history of what went wrong 102 years ago could help us understand what we must do right in the present.

We research Chicago history and architecture like this while developing our live virtual events and custom corporate events. Join us for our public virtual events or book an exclusive team-building event for your private group. We can also create custom tours and original content creation about this Chicago topic and countless others.

Makeshift flu wards, like this one in Kansas, popped up all over Chicago in 1918. Image via Wikimedia.

A Shamefully Misleading Name for the Flu

First of all, let’s note that the name “Spanish Flu” has always been inaccurate. Modern scientific studies point towards Kansas as the outbreak’s most-likely origin point. The pandemic is associated with Spain because that country stayed neutral during WWI. Its news media was not subject to military censorship. Hence, news of the disease’s effects circulated much more widely there. Meanwhile the wartime Allies of the US, UK, and France were suffering even more. Racists and nativists at the time used the misnomer as a cudgel in efforts to cut off immigration from the Mediterranean. Then the name Spanish flu spread just like the viral infection itself. Keep that history in mind when you hear elected officials today refer to Covid-19 as the “Chinese Virus”!

newspaper illustration of spanish flu in chicago
Image credit: Illinois Health News, October 1918

How Did the 1918 Flu Pandemic Spread to Chicago?

The mass mobilization of WWI enabled the outbreak of the 1918 flu to spread globally. Unfathomable numbers of young men shipped out, contracted the disease, and then returned home. The flu hopped from port to port and city to city. It devastated the military and civilian populations everywhere. Historical estimates of total global mortality range as high as 100 million.

Accordingly, the first appearance of the flu in the Chicago area was at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Waukegan. Officers put the sailors in quarantine, but they continued to allow visitors on-base. And then the virus quickly jumped into the general population.

A Slow Response to the 1918 Flu in Chicago

The first cases of influenza spread from the naval base to the Chicago in September on 1918. At that point, public health officials did not recognize it as a serious threat. Even as cases grew, officials were slow to respond. A local doctor proclaimed, “I see no cause for public alarm, but every one developing any symptoms should be careful.” The Health Commissioner also offered the reassuring words “DON’T WORRY.”

By October, health officials ordered sick Chicagoans to self-quarantine, yet public venues and gatherings remained open. Within weeks the number of new cases exploded, and medical facilities were overwhelmed. By the middle of October, there were up to 1200 new flu cases and 500 deaths each day. The lack of immediate social distancing had created a full scale pandemic. Chicago suffered deadly consequences.

influenza warning poster

The health department eventually printed flyers about the dangers of coughing, sneezing, and the dreadful public spitting. What we now call “masks” they termed “sneeze guards” or “germ screens.” People were taught how to make their own sterilized gauze masks at home. Even kissing was discouraged.

A Shutdown That Came Too Late

The city eventually closed venues with crowds, primarily recreational spaces like skating rinks and dance halls. Sound familiar? By the time the city of Chicago implemented these restrictions, the influenza epidemic was already raging out of control. Even as Chicago deals with the Coronavirus pandemic, I think it’s worth imagining how difficult circumstances were in 1918. Self-quarantine would have made social contact, work, media, and entertainment practically impossible. 

Thousands of Chicagoans, especially poor migrants, suffered terribly in the fall of 1918. The flu destroyed whole families. Now the memory of the influenza outbreak of 1918 motivates today’s measures to fight the Coronavirus outbreak. You can also read about more epidemics in Chicago history in “How Has Chicago Responded to Historic Epidemics”?

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


In business since 2010, Chicago Detours is a passionate team of educators, historians and storytellers. We applied a decade of experience as one of Chicago’s top-rated tour companies to become a virtual event company in 2020. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact about Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through custom tours, content production, and virtual events.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!