Chimczuk Museum Shows How Spanish Flu Threw a Curve Ball Windsor’s Way

(This photograph taken during the Spanish Flu epidemic in Windsor, Ontario, shows boys wearing camphor bags around their necks intended to ward off the dreaded influenza. It is part of the Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit on display at the Chimczuk Museum. Photo above by Robert Tuomi / Eyes On Windsor.)

Editor’s note: The Chimczuk Museum offered free admission to the public on Remembrance Day. One of the exhibits on display included, the Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919. This mini-exhibit commemorating the end of the First World War, explores the ​impact the Spanish Flu had on the Windsor Region.

Just as World War 1, largely being fought in far off lands, was ending a tragedy arrived on Windsor’s doorstep. Known colloquially as the Spanish Flu, this pandemic was identified as the cause of death for three per cent of the world’s population. It was nothing if not deadly.

So much so that fear spread throughout the city, causing authorities to take unusual actions. Among them were decided measures to restrict contact among citizens. Public buildings, such as theatres, were ordered closed. All streetcars were to operate with their windows open to ensure good air circulation.

Photograph, part of the Chimczuk Museum's Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit

This photograph, part of the Chimczuk Museum’s Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit shows a boy in front of a theatre, one of many public buildings, that was closed during the epidemic. Photo by Robert Tuomi / Eyes On Windsor.

As often happens when tragedy of such a large size arrives so do schemers and scammers willing to profit from other’s misery, or, in this case, their fear of misery.

Crooked entrepreneurs had a number of ways to “help” the public. Most were simply a means to extort money from unsuspecting and worried denizens. Much of this is detailed at downtown’s Chimczuk Museum as part of a just opened mini-display simply titled “Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919.”

Some of the ideas employed by distant product sellers who advertised locally to rob Windsorites were nothing if not ingenious. A poster titled “Making A Buck Off of The Flu,” that forms part of the display, talks of their abilities to fend off the Flu.

Scared residents could ease their concerns by drinking, “a daily glass of purgative water to clean out the digestive organs, camphor bags around the neck, ozone generators to keep germs out of the lungs, eating raw onions, or drinking ‘clabber,’ a thick soured milk that was said to kill influenza germs with the power of lactic acid.”

On another front, officials were taking no chances and offering no opportunities for the illness to be spread. On October 21, 1918, then Windsor Mayor Charles Tuson ordered the closing of public buildings.

City of Windsor Public Notice on display at the Chimczuk Museum as part of the Spanish Flu exhibit

City of Windsor Public Notice ordering closing of public buildings to reduce contact among local citizens on display at the Chimczuk Museum as part of the Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit. Photo by Robert Tuomi / Eyes On Windsor.

Hotel-Dieu hospital was actually turning patients away. There was no room. Deaths attributed to the flu were mounting. Deaths in the city in October 1918 doubled, almost entirely because of the Flu.

Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919, nurses cape on display

A highlight of the Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit at the Chimczuk Museum, this cape, belt and blouse were worn for official functions by nurses of the era. Photo by Robert Tuomi / Eyes On Windsor.

The Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit will be on display until February 2019.

For more information about Chimczuk Museum visit Museum Windsor’s website.

Photograph, part of the Chimczuk Museum's Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit

This photograph, part of the Chimczuk Museum’s Spanish Flu: The Windsor Experience 1918 -1919 exhibit shows an example of the precautions being taken across the country featuring telephone operators in High River, Alberta, wearing masks. Photo by Robert Tuomi / Eyes On Windsor.

Robert Tuomi
Article and photos by Robert Tuomi

For over a decade, Robert has covered local news and community events. Initially as a contributor to CBC Radio’s local morning show and then as the long-time producer and host of CJAM’s The Rest of the News and as a journalist at the Windsor Square. A graduate of the Nikon School of Photography he enjoys illustrating his reports with what he sees through his camera’s lens.