An information table in San Francisco during the flu pandemic of 1918. California State Library

Photos of the 1918 flu pandemic in California

We’ve been through shutdowns like this before.

In September of 1918, a global flu pandemic made entry into California. As with the coronavirus, the first cases were detected among travelers — a man who had returned to San Francisco from a trip to Chicago and seamen aboard a vessel that arrived to the harbor in Los Angeles.

What happened over the fall and winter will sound familiar. City officials imposed “stay at home” orders and forced the closure of schools and places of “public amusement.” Court proceedings and church services moved outdoors. Tents, hotels, and large halls served as makeshift hospitals. Panic was everywhere.

As the death toll climbed, measures became more severe, with forced quarantines and mandatory mask ordinances. Cops arrested so-called “mask slackers” by the hundreds.

By the time the pandemic subsided in 1920, at least 50 million people had died worldwide. More than 600,000 of those were Americans, far more than who died in World War I.

In California, outcomes appeared to vary according to the quickness and aggressiveness of the response in the state’s largest cities. Los Angeles lost more than 2,700 souls. The toll in Oakland was about 1,400. In San Francisco, which researchers say acted more slowly, the death rate was substantially higher, leaving more than 3,000 people dead.

Below is a visual look back at the way California responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic, with images retrieved from the digital archives of libraries, museums, and other sources.

Corpsmen in the influenza ward of the U.S. Naval Hospital on Mare Island, December 10, 1918.

U.S. Navy

A group in Mill Valley in November, 1918.

Raymond Coyne/Mill Valley Public Library

Oakland Municipal Auditorium was converted into a makeshift hospital.

Oakland Public Library

A court session was conducted outdoors in San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square in October, 1918.

California State Library

San Francisco Supervisor Andrew Gallagher, left and two men in Mill Valley.

California State Library; Raymond Coyne/Mill Valley Public Library

People lined up for masks in San Francisco, which made their use mandatory.

California State Library

An emergency flu hospital staffed by Naval corpsmen was set up in San Francisco’s Civic Center.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

American Red Cross volunteers prepared masks in Oakland.

Oakland Public Library

Congregants prayed for an end to the flu pandemic at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco.

Bettmann archive, via Getty Images

People who failed to wear masks faced arrest and fines.

California State Library

Patients were treated in a flu isolation ward at Wilson High School in Pasadena.

Harold Parker/Huntington Digital Library

Handing out flu masks in San Francisco.

California State Library

An open-air barber shop in Berkeley.

National Archives

Physicians vaccinated each other in San Francisco.

California State Library

A “mask slacker” got a warning in San Francisco.

California State Library

Nurses held young patients in San Francisco.

California State Library

A family visited Mountain View Cemetery in San Bernardino in 1919. A citation with the image suggested a flu death.

San Bernardino Public Library

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