FARGO — The Christmas season of 1918 started with a giant exhale. On Nov. 11, after four years and 116,516 American lives lost, the Treaty of Versailles was signed to put an end to World War I. The people of Fargo-Moorhead, like so many around the world, craved normalcy, a return to life before the conflict, before the sadness and loss. But unfortunately, 1918 wasn’t done with them yet.
The battle against the Spanish flu pandemic was still raging in the fall of '18 and, in fact, getting even stronger. While the virus was spreading in other parts of the world in the summertime, Fargo-Moorhead didn’t report any cases until October.
But when it hit, it hit hard with 100 cases reported on Oct. 4 and hundreds more in the coming weeks. Clay County Archivist Mark Peihl told The Forum, “It came in like a house a’fire.”
Most cases appeared to be mild, but not all of them, and with the highly contagious nature of the illness and the holidays approaching, Fargo’s health officer Dr. Paul Sorkness urged people to “cover their sneezes” and try to prevent a further spread.
“As a precaution all unnecessary public gatherings should be abandoned and all the affected persons isolated, and in the case of children they should be excluded from school,” he said in The Forum.
At Dr. Sorkness’ urging, the Fargo City Commission eventually ordered the closing of all churches, schools, libraries and theaters and banned all public gatherings and social events. Even though Moorhead wasn't hit as hard by the flu, its government instituted a similar closing order and gathering ban.
A perusal of stories from The Forum from October to the end of December 1918 shows people weren’t necessarily heeding the warning to avoid one another. The “Social Notes” section of The Forum was full of stories about family reunions and hostesses serving dinner to more than just a handful of guests. One vesper service at the YWCA that fall even reported having “good attendance.”
The newspaper archives also lead us to believe that it was pretty much business as usual for the Christmas shopping season. In newspaper advertisements, merchants did not mention the pandemic, including any limited hours of operation, wearing masks or distancing while shopping.
Instead, ads suggested shoppers buy items like silk petticoats, handbags, neckties and toys for their loved ones.
The only perceived nod to the flu in ads was a mention of the practicality and perfection of handkerchiefs as Christmas gifts that year. Another ad encouraged the drinking of malted milk during the season to fight influenza.
There was at least one report of shortages that season. On Christmas eve, the paper reported that “many a little boy and girl in Fargo won’t have their usual Christmas tree tomorrow,” because of a lack of Christmas trees coming into the city.
Dealers in Minnesota said there were plenty of trees in the Minnesota woods. They just had trouble finding labor to cut the trees, presumably because some men that year were still nursing injuries from the war while others had fallen ill with the flu.
The paper featured several columns about the solemnity of Christmas 1918 — the first post-war Christmas.
One December column titled “Fargoans will observe holiday in quiet manner” stated, “In many Fargo homes the day will be one of great rejoicings as the absent ones have returned from ‘over there’ and the family circle is again complete. To other families, where the chair will always remain vacant the consoling thought will come, that their loved ones have not died in vain and that they could not have made the supreme sacrifice in a better cause.”
Other stories and columns mentioned the need to reach and help the poor following the incredibly tough year of 1918 with the war and the flu.
A Dec. 21 column titled, “Tragedy, not joy may mark Christmas day in many homes in Fargo,” encouraged residents to provide “Christmas cheer” to friends and neighbors who wouldn’t need help in ordinary years.
“There are a number of cases in which very unfortunate conditions prevail. There are families hit by the influenza epidemic in which both the fathers and mothers were ill with the result that they are in bad financial circumstances,” the writer said.
While some families struggled financially that Christmas, the Fargo-Moorhead economy as a whole seemed strong.
One headline read, “Fargo has good building year despite war and high prices,” while banking numbers were solid.
In the fall of 1918, one well known Fargo banker is quoted in the paper saying of the end-of-year bank transaction reports, “these figures indicate generally healthy business conditions not only in Fargo but throughout the northwest. They firmly establish Fargo’s position as banking center of the northwest district.”
The other good news that Christmas was that their pandemic was nearly over. Cases were beginning to fall toward the end of the year, with a smaller wave peaking in March of 1919.
By the end of the pandemic, 50 million people worldwide died including 675,000 in the U.S. The official death toll in Minnesota was more than 10,000 and more than 1,700 in North Dakota. However, experts say, these official estimates are probably too low and the death toll was likely higher in the Dakotas and Minnesota.
By the Christmas season of 1919, some semblance of normalcy returned and people here were more than likely happy to put the post-war, pandemic Christmas of 1918 in the back of their memory.