Old black and white photo of several children and two adults posing with masks on
The wearing of masks was required by law in Berkeley during the 1918 flu pandemic. Photo: Courtesy Anthony Bruce (Bruce’s mother is the smallest child, on the right.)

Libraries and schools ordered to close. Cases of the disease climbing. Large buildings repurposed as makeshift hospitals. People keeping their distance and wearing masks.

Daily life in the COVID-19 era?

Or dispatches from a trove of letters written by a Berkeley woman to her traveling husband, in 1918, when the misnomered “Spanish flu” pandemic was ravaging the city?

Anthony Bruce, executive director of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, has hung onto these letters from his great-grandmother to his great-grandfather for his whole life. But the correspondence has taken on new significance in the age of coronavirus.

“Two years ago I put them all up on Facebook — just because it was 100 years later, but not because I ever imagined we’d be going through it again,” Bruce said.

The nearly 40 letters, which Mary Rhodes wrote more than daily to her husband Charles Rhodes during his business trip to Washington, D.C., by train, begin innocently enough.

“I cannot tell you, Charles, how delighted I am at your wonderful trip. Don’t rush away from Washington, and be sure to see our great President. I know you will be busy, but take a little pleasure with your work,” Mary (“Nannie” to Bruce’s family) wrote on Oct. 17, 1918.

Her letter to Charles (or “Daddy”) a day later reveals that Berkeley was under siege by the flu.

“All schools in Berkeley are ordered closed,” wrote Mary, who rented out rooms to UC Berkeley students in their Benvenue Avenue house. “Seventy-three new cases today. Miss Hine is greatly upset…One of her boy friends has just died at the infirmary. Also, a girl friend is very seriously ill. Worse tonight. So, we are not a gay household. The University rang me up to say that students must not appear on the campus without masks on.” (Bruce transcribed each of the letters, which he posted online along with images of some of the messages.)

The influenza pandemic — which did not originate in Spain, despite its nickname — killed up to an estimated 50 million people around the world from 1918 to 1920, more than the overlapping World War I. Thousands of those deaths occurred in the Bay Area, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, with the illness more seriously affecting children and young adults than older people, unlike the coronavirus. The first San Francisco case was reported in September 1918 — less than a month before Mary wrote her first letter — and the numbers skyrocketed after that.

UC Berkeley was hit particularly hard. Before the fall outbreak of the flu (a milder version circulated in the spring) the campus was gearing up for World War I. In September 1918, the campus doubled as a military academy of sorts with 3,500 male students enrolled simultaneously in academic and military classes. These men wore army or navy uniforms and slept together in gray wooden barracks that had sprouted up around campus. They held 250 beds each — a perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease. Female students did their part by enrolling in nursing or occupational therapy classes and sewing bandages for wounded soldiers, some of whom were sheltered at Hearst Hall.

On Oct. 6, the first cases of the flu were noted in Berkeley, when two flight cadets who had traveled from the East Coast came down with the illness. It spread rapidly. On Oct. 21, Benjamin Wheeler, the university president, ordered all students to wear masks. The Daily Californian, according to California magazine, printed his decree in words that echo today: “Act intelligently and do not become alarmed. FEAR reduces your resistance. … KEEP AWAY FROM ALL CROWDS. AVOID STREET CARS … DO NOT ATTEND PARTIES OF ANY NATURE … GO TO BED AT ONCE if you feel sick … INFLUENZA IS A PERSONAL CONTACT DISEASE.” (Read local historian Steve Finacom’s new series on the pandemic’s impact in Berkeley.)

In Mary’s letters, the mundane — garden work, birthday dinners, laundry — is mixed in with major war news and frequent reports of new deaths and cases.

There are admonitions to “never eat without washing the hands” and reports of squabbles about how to best keep safe, which will feel familiar to the many people in Berkeley with roommates, partners or aging parents figuring out how to live safely and ethically together in a new reality.

“Wattie stormed over my being out without a mask!” wrote Mary on Oct. 24. “I had an auto veil folded thick over my mouth and nose! Wattie does not go outside the door without his mask on, so of course he is too virtuous for words. I am too big a da…n fool to be trusted alone! And a few other pet names!”

Bruce was struck by how prominently masks figure in Mary’s letters. As a child, he also asked his mother why she and other relatives in a photo from the era were all wearing masks.

“Masks were a big thing then,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “I was surprised this time that we weren’t told to wear them from the beginning. I’ve started wearing one since yesterday, going to the grocery store.”

Later that evening the city of Berkeley announced new official guidance recommending residents cover their faces when they go out in public. The Centers for Disease Control followed suit Friday, despite previously advising the general public against wearing masks. However, surgical masks and N95s should still be left for health care workers and first-responders, said Dr. Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer, given the shortage of those products. Some residents have taken to sewing masks and manufacturing face shields for medical professionals, too.

Photo of an old letter with a stamped envelope
Anthony Bruce has 102-year-old letters from his great-grandmother to his great-grandfather detailing the impacts of the flu pandemic in Berkeley. Photo: Anthony Bruce

Bruce said people sewed masks during the 1918 pandemic as well, unsurprisingly as many more people knew their way around a spool of thread back then. (3D printers, not so much.)

At UC Berkeley, female students made 8,300 masks in three days and eventually produced 24,000. They could sew together four layers of gauze in about 15 minutes. “Obey the Law. And Wear the Gauze. Protect Your Jaws from Septic Paws,” read signs around the city.

Mary notes that the Oakland Auditorium (now the Kaiser Convention Center) was turned into a hospital, and many people also volunteered with the effort to slow and treat the flu in some capacity.

“Miss Hine has just come in, and she says they are talking of calling all these girls who are taking the War Service course out: to act as assistant nurses,” she wrote Oct. 20. “The Red Cross was here this morning looking for women to help.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom has similarly called on nursing and medical students to help treat COVID-19 patients, including at new clinics built from the ground up or inside repurposed buildings.

(Mary clearly felt guilty that she wasn’t doing more to help, calling herself a “slacker” but also pointing out that many of her acquaintances were similarly uninvolved.)

Those who didn’t take steps to protect themselves were also dubbed “mask slackers.” The city of Berkeley passed a law at the end of October mandating that masks be worn. Violating the new law carried a $500 fine, wrote Rex Adams in a 1998 edition of the Chronicle of the University of California.

“Two days after the Berkeley mask ordinance went into effect, 171 men and 4 women had been arrested as ‘mask slackers,'” Adams wrote.

Toward the end of their correspondence, Mary expresses exasperation at her husband for apparently coaching her, from across the country, on how to take care of herself and calm down.

“How very strange you— knowing me —should have thought that I was afraid!” she wrote Nov. 4. “And my dear husband, if you were here in Oakland or San Francisco, Berkeley, or any of the other cities about the bay, you would be wearing a mask. First, you were requested to, then it was made a law. Hundreds of people were arrested and fined…So, you need not wonder I wrote much about it! For it was all one could hear about.”

She continued: “I, of course, was not afraid for myself, but it made one’s heart ache to know how people were dying. You are too far away to be any judge of conditions, and what they were like. I have been following all the instructions you give in this letter: plenty of fresh air, not getting any closer to people than I can help. But I wear a mask. For one reason, I do not want to pay a fine. (I think they have carried it to extremes, such as arresting people driving in the park.)”

While nobody has been fined in Berkeley yet for violating shelter-in-place orders, there have been arrests and citations in some other countries and U.S. cities. But unlike the city described in Mary’s letters, Berkeley today has not reported any coronavirus deaths. And the Berkeley of 1918, where Mary and her peers went out bargain-hunting and left to visit their children as fatalities were being reported left and right, apparently did not have a stay-at-home order.

The 1918 flu permanently affected Bruce’s family.

“My grandfather [Mary’s son] came down with it really bad, wound up in the hospital and spent months recuperating. He was out of a job, and had other work-related accidents in the few years before.” In 1919, the devastation and economic struggles prompted Bruce’s grandparents to separate.

“It had a major effect. The children were sent to Berkeley to be raised by their grandparents,” said Bruce, who still lives in one of the two Berkeley houses owned by his family. His current housemate is a 91-year-old friend who he’s “not letting out.”

Otherwise, “I got for a brisk walk every two days and go to the grocery store when I need to,” now wearing a face-covering, he said. Bruce believes that many lessons from the flu pandemic have been lost along with the people who experienced it.

“The one thing that struck me right at the beginning was this was 102 years ago. It wasn’t 80 or 70, so there’s really nobody around now that remembers it firsthand,” he said.

His great-grandmother’s letters are a personal public service announcement of sorts.

Frances Dinkelspiel contributed reporting. 

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...