The Spanish Flu in Cartoons (Part 2)

In my previous post we talked about the ways in which newspaper comic strips—the place in a daily paper, otherwise devoted to world wars and local political debates, that was in 1918 primarily focused on entertainment and humor—engaged with the most devastating pandemic the United States had experienced. In the comic strips, cartoonists sought both to model healthy behavior but more urgently to promise that the daily rhythms of the ordinary would ultimately prevail over the disease. Indeed for me, looking back at these strips a century later in the midst of our own pandemic, it is precisely this promise I find reassuring.

Editorial cartoons served a different function in the daily paper, of course. Where comic strips at the time rarely engaged directly with the front-page headlines (with the important exception of Mutt & Jeff), editorial cartoons were responsible for condensing into a single panel the cartoonist’s (and often the editorial board’s) opinions on the news of the day. 

In many respects, the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 presented a significant challenge to editorial cartoonists. As discussed earlier, many papers downplayed the devastations of the pandemic at the outset while WWI continued. But even after the war’s end, we find fewer editorial cartoons directly addressing the disease than one might expect. Today for example, as will be discussed in a subsequent post, COVID-related editorial cartoons are everywhere, even as we today have far fewer editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers that we had a century ago. One reason, of course, is that COVID is politicized in a way that the Spanish Flu was not—or at least not to a degree similar to our present moment. Another reason, I suspect, is that, working in a visual medium, cartoonists had challenges in finding ways to represent what was indeed—at a time before anyone knew what an influenza virus looked like under the microscope—invisible.

In the final years of the 19th century mosquitos had been identified as the vector for both malaria and yellow fever, two devastating diseases that had eluded science for centuries. So, when searching for a way to personify the invisible menace of the influenza pandemic, mosquitos were conveniently close at hand. Indeed, a decade earlier “Ding” Darling had used mosquitos to represent the 1909 outbreak in St. Louis:

Gordon Brewster, Irish Independent, February 23, 1919
Chattanooga Daily Times, October 12, 1918
Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1918
San Francisco Examiner, October 17, 1918

In the cartoon on the left, the joke is that the arrival of the influenza has silenced the usual political bloviating of the fall season behind masks. On the right, the cartoonist for the Examiner uses the symbol of the flu mask to represent the call for voters to resist a raft of legislation (in the form of infectious mosquitos) being pushed this election season.

Of course, the metaphor of the mosquito had limitations. After all, the influenza peaked in the winter months, when mosquitos were nowhere to be found. Fortunately, the common name for the influenza provided other options to cartoonists:

Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1918.
John Knott, Dallas News, 1918.

The two cartoons above play on the common name for the pandemic of 1918-1920. Of course, the pandemic had not originated in Spain, as was widely believed. The fact of Spain’s neutrality during World War I meant they were not subject to war-time censorship and so reported the devastations of the first wave of the pandemic while other countries repressed the news in the name of morale. The representation of the “Spanish Flu” as a mustachioed lothario or a knife-wielding toreador were easily drawn from the long history of such cartoon stereotypes.

These two cartoons also point to something else worth pausing over. The cartoon on the left seeks to ridicule the recent decision by the LA Health Commissioner to shut down public spaces to limit the spread of the flu. Meanwhile, the cartoon on the right seeks to diminish the dangers of the pandemic that public health officials are desperately trying to convey by suggesting it is just like any old “grip”—grip, or grippe being a common name for the flu in the 19th century. Both cartoons could have been published today, articulating popular sentiments expressed by those inclined to be more anxious about public health mandates than about global pandemic.

Masks were as controversial then as they are today as well. California was especially active in pushing forward mask mandates a century ago. Faye King, working at the time for the San Francisco Examiner, published a series of cartoons supporting the mandate and encouraging others to join her in embracing masks in public spaces.

San Francisco Examiner, October 11, 1918
San Francisco Examiner, October 25, 1918
San Francisco Examiner, October 27, 1918

Needless to say, many resisted masks, just as today. Anti-mask leagues were formed in San Francisco and other cities, and public adoption of the masks remained uneven. Faye King was not the only one who used her comic to educate and promote mask wearing and responsible public health measures. In The Outbursts of Everett True, A. D. Condo used his long-running cantankerous protagonist to put scofflaws in their place.

November 17, 1918
November 15, 1918

November 9, 1918

Just as the cartoons of a century ago remind us that we have survived pandemics before and will again, they also remind us, perhaps less optimistically, that resistance to public health measures—whether based in arrogance, ignorance, or fantasies of individual autonomy—has been with us as long as have global pandemics. Sadly, this seems the harder cure.