In researching my new Coney Island webinar (aka Coney Island virtual tour), audience members asked me: did Coney Island amusements close during the 1918 Flu Epidemic?
The answer: no, as far as I can tell, and it's unclear how much attendance was affected. Yes, people were packed together for certain rides and attractions, as well as transportion to Coney, but surely there was less official concern about outdoor experiences.
Though peak concerns came after the summer season, I'd suspect that worries about the flu had at least some impact. (I'll post an update if I learn more.) I couldn't find any mention in any books about the flu, and the evidence from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is inconclusive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the pandemic began, sporadically, in March 1918. At right is an excerpt from the June 7, 1918 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Not only are movie houses open, Steeplechase Park is "Open As Usual." That seems a nod to the flu, since an advertisement from June 8, 1917 omitted such phrasing.
The real peak, according to the CDC, came later: "Between September and November, a second wave of flu peaks in the United States. This second wave was highly fatal, and responsible for most of the deaths attributed to the pandemic.
Yet Steeplechase was open--no "as usual" mention--according to this Sept. 13, 1918 ad from the Eagle. That said, I didn't see Steeplechase ad the following two weeks, though the movie houses were open. On Sept. 27, the city appropriated $25,000 to fight the flu, on a day 324 cases had been reported.
There's one famous, but not necessarily credible anecdote, as cited in the Washington Post: "In New York there were accounts of people feeling perfectly healthy when they boarded the subway in Coney Island and being taken off dead when they reached Columbus Circle." But this discussion notes the absence of a primary source.
On the left, an ad from the Sept. 30, 1918 Brooklyn Daily Eagle: "'Spanish' Influenza," according to the newspaper's expert, was "just ordinary Russian or American influenza." I don't think that was borne out by history.
New York City, as of September, required "all flu cases to be isolated at home or in a city hospital," according to the CDC. Some 195,000 people died in October, across the country, part of an overall toll of 675,000 nationally, part of 50 million deaths worldwide.
Indeed, as reported in the Oct. 5, 1918 Eagle, 2,070 new cases had been reported in one day, prompting "radical measures" to reduce congestion, including changing the hours at stores, theaters, and other places of business.
But that was after the summer season at Coney Island. Indeed, Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project recently observed that the crisis peaked in the off-season, so Coney "escaped the worst effects of the deadly 1918 flu."
Interestingly--and relevant to today's public conflicts--health authorities decided not to close churches, but insisted on short services and open windows, with public announcements regarding the necessity of precautions, including "a request that all unguarded sneezing and coughing be refrained from."
A similar announcement was required at theaters--but they weren't closed at the time, either. At right is an ad from the Oct. 18, 1918 Eagle, suggesting that those afflicted by the flu could build up strength by consuming Borden's Malted Milk.
The flu was clearly a problem, as seen by advertisements in the Eagle for lozenges and quinine, seen as protection and therapeutic, respectively.
But masks, apparently, were not at issue. One casualty of the flu, according to the book Famous Nathan, is that Nathan's Famous founder Nathan Handwerker saw his Oct. 26 wedding plans derailed, with only 125 of 300 invitees attending--and many of them sick.
By December, stores and factories nationally were encouraged to stagger opening and closing hours, and people were encouraged to avoid public transport to prevent overcrowding, according to the CDC.
A third wave of the flu emerged in the winter and spring of 1919, subsiding in the summer and thus, apparently, sparing Coney Island. Still, an ad in the May 24, 1919 Eagle declared, with no caveats, that Steeplechase was "open for the season."
So it looks like the amusement parks--Luna Park was open as well--endured with far less concern than in 2020. For example, this long March 2018 article about the flu, from the NYC Department of Records & Information Services, doesn't mention Coney.
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.