History 301: Healing and rebirth after the Spanish Flu

A group of 23 women gather on a the steps of a front porch for this circa-1920s photograph. Many of the women are wearing corsages or carrying bunches of flowers. INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO

The April 2020 installment of History 301 focused on the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918-20.


Contributing editor

When spring arrived in 1921, it must have, even more than usual, seemed to be a time of healing and rebirth. The nation had just survived a war the breadth and magnitude of which had never been seen. And on the heels of the war, came the influenza pandemic of 1918. That pandemic lasted through almost all of 1920, as well.

It was January 1921 before the nation, and this city, began to feel “back to normal.” But who feels “normal” in January in Indiana? Undoubtedly it was not until the first warm days of spring that Americans (and the world, in fact) could breathe a long blossom-scented sigh of relief.

In Indianapolis, as soon as January was over signs of spring appeared. On Feb. 13, 1921, page 40 in The Indianapolis Star: The “organdy flounces” were “singing of spring” at L. S. Ayres; the “mode in smart spring footwear” was already available for “women who like to keep in advance of the style will be interested in knowing just what will be worn in footwear this spring.” Why shop for spring footwear in February?  Because, Spring.  

Squeezed in on the same page, just above an announcement that Ida Tarbell would be at L. S. Ayres Book Section to autograph copies of her book, The Business of Being a Woman, was an enticing ad for “delectably fresh like peach blossom petals, and as much a part of the joyous spring refurnishing – quality crepe de chine undergarments.” 

Just four days after Ida Tarbell competed for space with peach blossom panties, members of the Mystic Tie Club celebrated the club’s 17th anniversary at the home of Mrs. William Meyers on Alabama Street. According to The Indianapolis Star, the tables for the party were adorned in spring flowers and the place cards were done up in the shape of butterflies. Some of the 17 members presented papers with titles such as Forward, Not Backward, Help the Helpless, and Flowers. Here they were, at last, headed into a bright spring after the darkest of winters, who could blame them for pushing the season a little?

The Mystic Tiers weren’t the only Indianapolis doyens heralding spring a bit early, either. Mrs. J. W. Capron’s “charming 1 o’clock lunch” on Feb. 24 also featured “spring flowers” centerpieces, plus the generous Mrs. Capron gave all of her guests glass baskets full of spring flowers to take home. After the two previous years, 1921 was a good year to spread the spring around.

Mrs. Ada Wolf also chose spring flowers at the reception she threw for her daughter’s wedding in February. The bride wore a gown of white crepe silk, “handsomely embroidered, with tulle cap held in place by orange blossoms.” The rooms of the house were filled with – what else—Spring flowers and greenery.

So ready for spring were Indianapolis residents that on the newspaper page that covered the society news mentioned above, there were no fewer than 12 uses of the word “spring.”  There were “spring clothes,” “spring coats,” “spring suits,” still more “spring flowers,” and “spring corsages,” the “newest arrivals of smart spring millinery,” and even “medium-weight spring needle-ribbed union suits” filling the page with thoughts of, well, spring. L. S. Ayres attempted to remind readers to “Look to your Winter Needs,” and shop for marked down winter coats in an advertisement on the same page. But who were they kidding? Indianapolis wanted spring.

A month later it really was spring and the announcements of students returning home to Indianapolis on their spring vacations from college can still bring a smile to a researcher’s face more than 100 years later. Imagine the relief and joy of those homecomings just three months after the end of the influenza epidemic. Mary Hoke, Harriet Brown, Mary Hogan, and Isabel Antrim were all returning home to Indianapolis during their spring breaks from Swarthmore, Northwestern, Miss Bennet’s School at Millbrook, N.Y., and the National Park Seminary in Washington, D.C., respectively. These were probably the first visits these families had had since they’d sent their daughters out into the Spanish flu-filled world in December. But now – spring.

While these college girls were in town, the same page of the newspaper that announced their visits also informed them that they could shop at Brosnan’s for their spring suits, or coats in the “newest spring shades” of “hickory, nutria, poilu blue and various grays.” And for lunch, they could prepare a spring salad, with “a small amount of lettuce with one fresh tomato and a small cucumber sliced upon it, and the whole sprinkled with minced chives …” A veritable spring explosion in the winter weary mouths of Indianapolis.

In 2020, Indianapolis is once again experiencing a winter of dark influenza epidemic. This year it kept us at home well into spring. But soon enough, we, like our Indianapolis counterparts of a hundred years ago will shake off the    darkness of winter – to celebrate. Let’s spring.

Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.