One of my favorite parts of my job as a History Specialist at the Everett Public Library is doing programming that teaches people about local history. Some of these programs are lectures on historical topics, while others are hands-on workshops that discuss how to work with family collections of photographs and other records. One thing that I try to stress over everything else is that we are always living through history, and are always part of history. In the most average of times, it’s very hard for many people to receive this message. How could my Facebook wall, emails, or my Instagram posts possibly be historic? They don’t seem to have the same gravitas as those sepia toned pictures of great grandma, do they? So what happens when we find ourselves living through a series of events that one can’t help but recognize as being historic?
I’m sure those of us who were living during September 11th, 2001 could tell us a little something about where they were that morning. Do our voicemails or emails still survive from that day? Perhaps some of us have a forgotten Livejournal post or two floating around the internet recording our thoughts and fears from that period of time, but it’s unlikely that many of us documented what was going through our minds and kept those fleeting, likely digital records.
We currently find ourselves living through a period of time that will undeniably be viewed decades from now as historic. While COVID-19 is a different disease with its own trajectory from the Influenza pandemic of 1918-19, there is much that can be learned from how people documented their lives during that time, and how historians put those pieces back together over 100 years later. In this excellent article that was just published in The Lewiston Tribune, you can see a similar pattern of spotty information, varying local responses, public disbelief, and waves of infection. The author used a variety of sources to put this account together: published books on the pandemic, interviews with a woman who lived through the pandemic, local poetry and children’s rhymes, contemporary news accounts, archival images, and so much more. All of these documents survived to be used by a mixture of chance, and people taking deliberate action to make sure that their records would be saved.
There are a couple of local resources that I have been fortunate to work with that talk about how Everett families coped in 1918-19. In a journal loaned to me by Everett historian Neil Anderson, I read about Doris Bell’s life during the influenza pandemic. At the time Doris worked as a teacher in the remote town of Alpine, Washington (between Skykomish and Scenic). Her journal entries document the life of a young career woman who seemed peripherally aware of how influenza was impacting the larger population centers, though the remoteness of her teaching position protected her from being exposed to the worst of the pandemic. Her life in Alpine was most affected when her school was closed temporarily in October of 1918, though it appears that there was not a serious outbreak in her area.
During the school closure Doris returned to Everett to visit her family. From what can be gleaned from her journal, life went on fairly normally, with no cessation of casual social activities. This would not have been unusual at this time, as there were not any formal prohibitions on visiting other people. On October 8th the Everett Health Board had banned all public gatherings such as school, dances, and church, but day-to-day life went on. According to notes in the Northwest Room archive on Everett Tribune coverage from 1918, it appears that people were cautioned to stay home, but that downtown Everett showed little sign of change other than the darkened theaters. In the cigar stores it was business as usual, with people gathering to socialize and smoke.
Nurses at Providence slowly became overwhelmed throughout October, and many became ill. The Tribune reported that volunteers were coming in shifts in to sterilize and pack bandages; no nurses could be called up from Seattle because there were none to spare. The old wooden Bethania College building on Broadway, near what is now Compass Health on Broadway, was returned to hospital service and the Red Cross put a call out to the public for bed pans and any other medical supplies that could be spared.
Doris’s routine daily entries were occasionally punctuated with mentions of people in her social circle succumbing to influenza, and in one jarring instance, a fellow passenger dying on a train she was aboard. Because Doris was limited to a mere four lines per day, her mixing of death and mundane daily tasks can feel a bit jarring, but that was a result of the format she had available rather than a reflection of callousness. There are occasional references to masks (the State Health Board started requiring the wearing of gauze masks in public on November 4th), but her entries are dominated by her more-or-less normal life: going for walks, seeing friends, and thoughts about her work. Reading Doris’s journal doesn’t feel much different from reading friends’ Facebook walls, where incredibly serious news is mixed with the kinds of content we’re used to sharing. People are aware of the bigger picture, but most are still living their lives albeit in a very modified way.
Another window into local life during the influenza pandemic comes from the minutes book of the Everett Woman’s Book Club. According to this record, October and November meetings were cancelled due to the influenza, and the December meeting account was peppered with mentions. A gold star was added to the service flag for a local soldier who passed away in France of influenza, and member Ida Coleman asked her colleagues to help with the eradication of the disease. Both Doris Bell’s journal and the Woman’s Book Club minutes mention working in the gauze room; it’s unclear if they were helping sterilize and pack bandages for the local hospitals in need, or if these efforts were intended to help troops abroad.
So what are the journals and club minutes of today? How do we preserve our altered daily lives so that someone looking back in 100 years will understand the decisions we made and the actions we took? It is important to recognize that the future of our daily records like Facebook, or Instagram, or any other social media are less than secure. Changing trends in social media may see many of these platforms fall out of favor and disappear over time (see Friendster or Myspace).
The best way to help ensure that our historical record doesn’t have gaps during this time period is to intentionally document your experiences and look for the organizations that are trying to preserve these kinds of records. Preserving digital materials is a problem that still hasn’t been solved, but archives and museums are doing their best to have plans in place to prolong their lives.
At the Everett Public Library, we have launched the Community History project, which aims to collect people’s images and thoughts during this time of social distancing. To participate, you need only to email your content to CommunityHistory@everettwa.gov – we will be monitoring this account for submissions to be considered for inclusion in our archives. If you are keeping a written journal, keep the library in mind for a future donation either of the original or a copy if you would rather keep it in the family. The Northwest Room has already been building an archive of news clippings, city records, and documents related to how local businesses and organizations are reacting to COVID-19, but we are very interested in preserving what life was like for our community members on an individual level. I encourage you to consider sending your thoughts, pictures, poetry, or art as emails to the future.