This week in history: New Year’s celebrations bright amid flu pandemic

By the end of 1918, most Chicagoans were only too happy to see it end. Here’s how they celebrated.

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Barber wears a mask as he shaves a man’s beard

A Chicago barber wears a mask as he shaves a man’s beard in 1918.

Chicago Daily News

As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Much like contemporary Chicagoans, the Chicagoans of 1918 were only too happy to see the end of the year. Not only had World War I finally ended, but the city faced a terrible flu pandemic that killed over 8,000 people that fall.

The Dec. 31, 1918 edition of the Chicago Daily News documented the pending thrill of the events to come that night.

“Hotels and clubs and other places where revelers congregate to greet the new year are overdoing themselves in the way of entertainment,” the paper reported. Celebrities from local theaters were booked to headline events, and some hotels and clubs even planned “stunts.”

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Movie theaters, which were closed for a time during the pandemic, offered midnight shows and vaudeville acts to bring in patrons, the paper continued.

Chicagoans likely felt a return to normalcy with this New Year’s in little ways. At the Congress Hotel’s Pompeian room, “there will be overflow into the big lobby as in prewar years” although no dancing, the report said.

Over in the South Loop, congregates of Quinn Chapel, the oldest African American congregation in the city, planned “exercises commemorating the signing of the emancipation proclamation” for New Year’s Day, the paper said. Henry R. Rathbone, a former president of the Hamilton Club, would be speaking at the chapel.

Yet even amid the festivities, the Daily News reporter had a moment of clairvoyance in describing the merrymakers.

“They fear this may be the last of the big New Year’s Eve revels — that ere another New Year rolls around the country may be ‘bone dry,’ and — then what?”

So how were these ballrooms, hotels and movie theaters open during a pandemic? Though there was a slight resurgence in December, the city’s health commissioner did not impose new restrictions on establishments. Health inspectors still had to sign off on venues reopening, and they could shut them down for failing to follow health guidelines, which did happen.

The death rate also stayed low. According to the Influenza Archive run by the University of Michigan, there were less than 20 deaths per 100,000 people throughout the month of December, and in the new year, that number continued to trend down.

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