Issue 55 | June 2020
I was inspired by the current Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic currently ravaging the world to bring out a little publication on Spanish Flu advertising. Having already published the six-volume series of “Classic Ads”, over 3,300 pages covering print advertising from 1900 to 1969, I got to thinking about the virus that 100 years ago managed to kill an estimated 50 to100 million people.
I wondered how the media of the day handled the situation in terms of reporting, advertising, cartoons and the ever- popular comic strips. In those days there was of course only one principal source of news and this was print – newspapers, magazines and flyers.
Radio was in its infancy; the first commercial radio broadcast did not take place until November 1920; there was no television and of course the internet was still more than 70 years away.
Radio started to catch on. By 1922, the number of sets in America had grown to an estimated 60,000 but, with a population of 110 million, almost everybody still relied on print media for their information. Movie news reels were few and far between.
I did find one surviving reel showing nurses making masks which can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEfY1UzLaag
In my little book I’ve assembled a small collection of over 160 advertisements, articles, headlines and cartoons from the time. No country was unaffected.
Although called the Spanish Flu, it did not originate in Spain. A number of countries have been pinpointed as the possible source including France, China and the UK.
The first recorded case however was at a military base in Kansas on March 11, 1918.
During the First World War Spain remained neutral and the press was free to report events as it saw them. Other countries were under strict censorship rules and allowed only limited reporting of this new pandemic because of the demoralising effect it would have on both the military and civilian populations. Because Spain reported freely, the pandemic was labelled as the Spanish Flu, a name that has stuck these past 100+ years.
Reading through the ads and steps taken by the authorities to control the flu, as best they could, it is remarkable to see how closely the actions currently taken by countries to counter this pandemic so closely resemble those of over 100 years ago.
Today as a society we are in a much better position to control and eventually neutralise the effects of Covid-19 through the development of vaccines. Until that happens travel between countries will be restricted for having brought the virus under control in any particular country the authorities will not want risk further outbreaks by opening up their borders until it is safe to do so. For countries with porous borders this will be hard to do.
Even though countries are in lock-down and cross border travel is restricted we do have the means of communicating with each other through the internet, whether by email, social media, voice or video conferencing. We may be down but we are certainly not out.
One real danger as I see it is that we have now put virtually all our faith in one means of communication, the internet. I have long said that the most dangerous number in business is one and with the slow death of print media due to diminishing advertising and greater reliance on the internet in its various guises we are, as a society, taking a great risk.
I am still very much a ‘print’ man at heart. I launched my first newsletter as a 12-year old over 60 years ago. I have always loved books, magazines and newspapers. This is why producing books like these is so satisfying.
I trust you enjoy my little book on the Spanish Flu, which is free to download. Hopefully it will give you a flavour of what life was like in the closing days of World War 1. The headlines then were a mixture of ‘Victory over the Hun’ and news of a strange new virus that was afficting various countries.
Ultimately, more people died from the Spanish Flu than in the entire four years of WW1.
As you will see from this book, the advice given in 1918 mirrors (with few exceptions) the advice that is given today.
- Thoroughly wash your hands at every opportunity (so lots of soap adverts)
- Wear a Mask (and save your life said the Red Cross)
- Cough, sneeze into a handkerchief (“Coughs & Sneezes Spread Diseases”)
- Avoid crowds
- Do not spit
- Do not use common drinking cups or towels
- Avoid excessive fatigue
- Don’t put fingers or pencils in your mouth or nose
- Ride a bicycle (ie take exercise)
- Don’t stay in stores longer than necessary
- Don’t visit friends, indoors or out
- Avoid main streets
- Keep your bedroom windows open
Some slightly more dubious suggestions included:
Eat more onions (one of the best preventatives for influenza). This turns out to be true. Onions are a source of prebiotics and help breed good gut bacteria which strengthen the body’s immune system.
Eat more fruit. “Sick Room and Gift Fruit Our Speciality”, announces Dan W. Poupard, Fruit Specialist.
Eat more candy. Because it’s nice.
Take gin pills. Personally I prefer my gin in liquid form. But The National Drug & Chemical Co of Canada claimed their pills were “the universal remedy for Kidney or Bladder Trouble.”
Get your pillows laundered. Victoria Steam Laundry “guarantee to kill every germ”.
Get your rugs sterilised. The American Rug Laundry demanded readers “Guard Against Influenza” by having their rugs washed and dried.
Get out into the country. While public gatherings were forbidden and churches, schools and theatres closed, it was okay to take the family to a country hotel like The Brentwood, for a spot of fishing and shooting and other outdoor pursuits.
Some fairly dubious products were to be found on the pages of the newspapers.
Wampole’s Paraformic Lozenges; Hale’s Life Tonic – “for that tired-out condition and debility after INFLUENZA”; Milton, three times a day, gargled or “snuffed” up the nose; Foley’s Honey & Tar – “spreads warmth and comfort.” And, most alarming of all, Dr Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets (cleans your mouth, skin and bowels).
Elsewhere, advertisers were coming up with some interesting angles on the pandemic.
Edison urged readers to buy one of their phonographs because there was “No danger of catching the flu from any of the Edison artists.”
Jackson Street Shoe Parlor argued that new shoes would keep feet dry and thus prevent severe illness.
Improbably, GBD, manufacturer of pipes, suggested: “When homeward bound in crowded train/ With influenza nar/ Just smoke a pipe – a GBD/And clear the atmosphere.
Rather more plausibly, The Bell telephone Company wrote that “People who are in quarantine are not isolated if they have a bell telephone.”
Brands were clamouring for attention. The advice was to wash your hands regularly but with what? Yardley’s Old English Lavender Soap? Or with Lifebuoy, “More than soap yet costs no more”. Or Sunlight? “Hark to the patter of children’s feet/They are happy and clean in Sunlight Street.”
But what to drink? Ovaltine, Oxo and Bovril were all putting themselves forwards as brands you could trust to “fortify the system”.
Major O’Gourmand’s approach to the dilemma in a cartoon of 1918 was champagne.
The lesson to be absorbed from these century-old ads and cuttings is, of course, that “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.”
That’s Ecclesiastes Chapter 1, verse 8. You knew that.
In 1958, Henry Newrick, aged 12, founded, edited and sold at 1d per copy (that’s one old penny in UK money, or a fraction of a cent today) his first newsletter.
Like David Ogilvy, he sold encyclopaedias door-to-door. At the age of 23 he founded The National Business review, which, 50 years on, remains New Zealand’s leading business journal.
At an age when he had no right to be involved in the music/fashion scene, he co-founded ‘Pavement’.
In 2008 he published ‘The Domain Game’, or how a bunch of people got rich from internet domain names. In 2017 he finished researching “Classic Ads”, now available in six volumes online.
Quite frankly, Henry is a dude.
At a time when we are all staring down the barrel of recession, Henry has weathered five major downturns. His little book is evidence that we will get out of this situation.
To get a free copy of “Classic Ads: Spanish Flu” (usually US$9.95), email [email protected] with the word Directory in the subject line and Henry will email you a PDF.