FYI: Dating Sucked During the Other Historical Pandemic Too

Jillian Goltzman
·7 mins read
Photo credit: Sanchi Oberoi
Photo credit: Sanchi Oberoi

From Cosmopolitan

Dating in 2020 looks a lot like an “Expectation vs. Reality” gif. Expectation: Love! Happiness! Butterflies! Reality: masks... Zoom...glory holes???

And while people have certainly been making the whole socially-distant thing work, it’s undeniably a weird time to be single and/or navigating a relationship.

But it's also not the first weird time of its kind. Let's rewind, oh, about 100 years.

Insert: The Spanish Flu, or what some people may refer to as the Influenza pandemic.

You can blame the Spanish Flu, which lasted from 1918-1919, for an estimated 50 million deaths—including about 676,000 fatalities in just the United States, according to the CDC. And yup, it’s definitely comparable to our current pandemic. Just look at some of these headlines from the 1918 newspaper archives:

  • “Kissing is Barred While Influenza is Lurking About” – The Tombstone Epitaph of 1918

  • “Quarantine Will Be Lifted: Schools and Places of Amusement to Reopen” – The Chattanooga News of 1918

  • “Wellesley College to Break Quarantine to See Show” – The Boston Globe of 1919

This got me thinking: Was dating as nearly impossible then as it is now? Were singles making it work despite city-wide shutdowns? Were hookup pacts a thing then, too?

Historians say yes. Kind of.

So here’s what we know about what dating was like during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Trust, Americans felt cockblocked by the Spanish Flu just as much as you do now.

Kissing Was High-Key Controversial.

Okay, so even prior to the Spanish Flu, kissing was seen as taboo in the early 1900s, anyway. “The Dangers of Kissing” made headlines in 1890 and locking lips was a touchy subject. (Obviously a lil different than our societal sitch pre-COVID-19).

But once the Influenza made its way through the world, some cities established kissing bans and protocols to curb the spread of the virus. “There were some restrictions where people were suggested not to hug or kiss the soldiers returning from war because they may bring the virus with them,” explains Roi Mandel, a researcher at the genealogy platform MyHeritage. (ICYMI: World War I ended right around this time).

Just like singles are currently breaking quarantine to get laid, we can only assume some weren’t super down to follow the kissing ban. In Mandel’s research, he found an article on an anti-kissing statute in Cincinnati that was widely ignored by the city’s mayor, who turned a blind eye to affection when 800 soldiers returned to Ohio after WWI.

Another example: In a 1920 issue of The Bisbee Daily Review, a man was arrested in Madrid for kissing his wife in the street. The law “forbid a man from kissing a woman in the streets of the city with or without consent" while Influenza was on the rise.

Singles Discovered New Ways to Find ~Love~ Interests.

During the Spanish Flu era, singles would often take out marital ads in the classified sections of the newspaper, says Mandel. Rather than swiping right on a profile, singles were scouring the daily paper for a suitable match. Cute.

And no phones meant no dating apps or texting, so that’s when love letters really became A Thing, says Mandel.

Photo credit: MyHeritage
Photo credit: MyHeritage

Plus, just like how some couples today have met and quickly coupled up, singles back then were unexpectedly falling in love, too. (Cue Rihanna’s “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place.”)

Just ask Pym Underwood Mumford, whose grandparents met after the war, in part thanks to the Spanish Flu.“My granddaddy William Henry Underwood, a U.S. Army drill sergeant, was training troops in Galveston, Texas, in 1917, to go over to fight on the Allied side in France. He got a summons from his superior officer to inform him that his mother was seriously ill with the Influenza and likely to die,” she shares.

When he arrived at his mother’s bedside, he saw his sister’s best friend Lois Phillips. “He came and found her nursing his mother on her deathbed, and he was absolutely enchanted by the whole scenario,” she shares.

Photo credit: Pym Underwood Mumford
Photo credit: Pym Underwood Mumford

Safety Measures Were Put in Place, which Made Dating IRL Difficult.

Just like our man Dr. Fauci, state health officials advised many of the same safety measures we have in place today. According to a 1918 archive in The Democratic Banner, Surgeon General Report Blue suggested people avoid crowds, “careless spitting,” sharing items like cups or handkerchiefs, and kissing. Some cities and states even enforced similar quarantines, closing businesses and gatherings making it extra hard to meet new people.

“A number of what were considered frivolous gatherings like circuses, local fairs, that kind of thing—many of them were banned during the first and second wave of the pandemic,” explains Naomi Rogers, PhD, a professor of the history of medicine at Yale University.

Photo credit: MyHeritage
Photo credit: MyHeritage

And movie theaters were “tricky” to figure out, since silent films were actually vital as a medium to broadcast important messages. “While it was recognized that it was dangerous to have people in an inside environment, at the same time what a movie theater could do was show many of the health departments rules and regulations on the screen,” says Rogers.

So while people weren’t totally cut off from civilization, social-distancing guidelines remained… which made it harder to find things to do IRL together, let alone while dating.

If You Wanted to Be Intimate, You Had to Get a Lil Creative.

While the New York City Department of Health has recently encouraged the use of glory holes and mask-on sex (lol), health officials of the early 1900s weren’t exactly spilling tea on safe sex tips. However, couples did find ways to go around the kissing sanctions. In his research, Mandel came across an ad for the “kissing screen,” which the archived issue of Popular Science Monthly admits could be “easily used as a ping pong racket.”

Couples could place the screen between their lips for safe, “antiseptic” kisses. “It was the weirdest thing ever but there were things people invented because people understood they could not kiss each other and they needed to find a solution,” explains Mandel. Kissing through a handkerchief was also a popular recommendation touted in newspapers.

Spoiler alert: These methods were not—and still aren't!—a safe "solution" though. And while they get points for creativity, don't try this at home—especially considering how the netting screen and fabrics used in the early 1900s were most likely made out of porous materials. (Porous materials = not a good protectant against the exchange of droplets. It's worth mentioning that most masks actually need an extra layer of fabric, anyway.)

Photo credit: MyHeritage
Photo credit: MyHeritage

Masks Were Used as a Means to Protect Each Other From the Virus—and as a Way to Prevent Verbal Harassment.

I know you're not surprised, but men were already asking women to smile more in the early 1900s. Le sigh. But because masks were encouraged during flu outbreaks and the Influenza, women used adorned masks not only as a preventative method, but also as a way to avoid catcallers. (Brilliant!) “Femininity will not be repressed—or annoyed,” read one news clipping.

So, What's Next?

While a vaccine was never created for the Spanish Flu, survivors had developed immunity by 1919 and life moved forward. Despite the devastation of the virus, dating managed to evolve in the years following the virus—and hello, Roaring Twenties and sexual revolution!

And, FWIW, people did channel all of their quarantine repression into intimacy once the pandemic ended. News outlets reported on the scandalous “petting parties” of the early 1920s—which were places that hosted groups of couples who wanted to do everything with their partner but intercourse. Singles "kissed" and "fondled" their significant others all alongside their friends. They called it "peer regulation" because having their friends near them prevented them from being pressured to have sex (since, hi, lack of privacy).

So if history really does repeat itself, I’d say we can hopefully look forward to what will soon become our version of the Roaring Twenties. In the mean time, though, at least we have glory holes? And Tinder? And TikTok love stories to live vicariously through?

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