The Great Ad-Demic: How Spokane's businesses advertised in newspapers during the 1918 pandemic

The Great Ad-Demic: How Spokane's businesses advertised in newspapers during the 1918 pandemic (5)
December 11, 1918, Spokesman-Review ad
If print media are dinosaurs, the coronavirus is its comet.

Though newspapers have been allowed to continue to operate — dubbed an essential business — they rely on advertising from local businesses. And businesses that aren't allowed to legally operate rarely see the need to advertise — even if they could afford to.

In particular, the crisis represents an existential threat to alt-weeklies like the Inlander, which have been scrambling for ways to find new sources of revenue and hoping loyal advertisers will return — the ones that survive, at least — by the time the economy picks up again.

That led us to seek answers from the past: In 1918, the world was hit with one of the worst pandemics in American history. There was a shutdown then too.

While theaters and churches were closed in Spokane by order of the local health officers, restaurants and department stores largely continued to operate and continued advertising. Even as the death toll rose, the Spokane Daily Chronicle and the Spokesman-Review continued to pump out papers celebrating the virtues of toupees, Shredded Wheat, and Lucky Strike ("It's toasted!").

John Barry's The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, argues that newspapers shamefully underplayed the deadliness and the terror of the epidemic, largely shrugging it off as nothing more than the "nothing more or less than old-fashioned grippe.”

"As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so," Barry writes, "They terrified by making little of it, for what officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured. People could not trust what they read. Uncertainty follows distrust, fear follows uncertainty, and, under conditions such as these, terror follows fear." 

The result in the pages was a rah-rah-we're-all-in-this-together-chum mix of reasonable guidance (stay away from crowds! don't put pencils in your mouth!), false assurances, and a steadily increasing death toll. If anything, it closely mirrored the tenor of the cheerleading "win one for our boys!" coverage of World War I, which was ending just as the epidemic ramped up in the fall of 1918.

In some cities, Barry writes, that even could even extend to wartime-level censorship.

"In Phoenix, even after the war ended, the 'Citizens’ Committee' that had taken over the city during the emergency continued to impose silence, ordering that 'merchants of the city refrain from mentioning the influenza epidemic directly or indirectly in their advertising,'" Barry writes.

While there was no such order in Spokane, the number of advertisements that explicitly referenced the pandemic seemed to decline as it progressed. During the months following October 1918 in Spokane, however, numerous
department stores, pharmacies and manufacturers found ways to turn the epidemic into profit.

The Great Ad-Demic: How Spokane's businesses advertised in newspapers during the 1918 pandemic (14)
Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 14, 1918

What Viagra ads are to evening TV newscasts today, local pharmacy ads were to the newspapers in the early 1900s.

Even before the pandemic hit, pharmacies were churning out a steady stream of advertisements promising miraculous results from emetics, weight loss drugs, and laxatives. 

So once the Spanish flu began killing dozens of people in Spokane, savvy advertisers began tailoring their pharmaceutical message to the epidemics, hawking a slew of cures and tonics with names like "Wilson's Solution or Anti-Flu" under newspaper-style headlines like "Has Deadly Influenza Germ Been Conquered?"

While this "terrible epidemic is on" another ad proclaimed, don't "leave the house without a bottle of Mentho-Laxene handy."

A particular big player in the local ad game was Joyner's Original Cut-Rate Drug Stores, which sold their own branded Joyner's Cold and Grip Capsules as a cure for influenza.

"Most of us, these busy days can not afford, if it can be avoided, to lose a week or more of work so it is all the more necessary that at the very first sign of grip or influenza that counteracting treatment should be taken," Joyner's insisted.

For coughs, they claimed "Glycerol Lobelia" was "absolutely harmless, but works like magic." Foley's Honey and Tar, similarly, was "just what every suffer of influenza or la grippe needs now."

Denver Mud — a cream applied to the skin to open up the capillaries — purported to help people avoid the danger of pneumonia from flu.

Maybe the goofiest anti-influenza recommendation from Joyners was a bottle of Oil of Hyomei — made of alcohol, liquid paraffin and a lot of oil of eucalyptus and a small rubber inhaler. Users were directed to drip a few drops of the oil into the inhaler and then breathe through the inhaler once every half hour.

"Every particle of air that enters your breathing organs will thus be charged with an antiseptic healing balsam," Joyner's insisted in Spokane newspapers. "A few cents spent now may easily prevent serious illness and save you many dollars and help stamp out the spread of the disease."

Even back in olden times, doctors considered it quackery: In 1912, the Journal of the American Medical Association scoffed that "this mixture never cured anything, unless it was impecuniosity in its exploiter."

Some ads were initially indistinguishable from straight news articles by the small "advertisement" disclaimer at the top: A Spokane Daily Chronicle item headlined "Influenza Claims More Victims Than German Bullets" turns out into an advertisement for Taniac tonics and laxative tablets sold by Murgittroyds's.

Murgittroyds's also sold Flu Mask of Antiseptic Gauze ("superior to the ordinary cheesecloth masks") for 25 cents, to be paired with aromatic antiseptic drops.

But maybe the most successful ad campaign came from Vick's VapoRub, which dedicated numerous ads in Spokane newspapers to celebrating the ways that the vapors could open up the linings of air passages and "throw off germs."
"Vicks VapoRub advertisements in hundreds of papers danced down the delicate line of reassurance while promising relief, calling the epidemic, “Simply the Old-Fashioned Grip Masquerading Under a New Name," Barry writes.

The ad campaign boosted sales by 300 percent. 

"When the Spanish flu hit the U.S. from 1918 to 1919,
Vicks VapoRub sales skyrocketed from $900,000 to $2.9 million in just one year," the Vicks VapoRub website proclaims today. "Sales increased so dramatically that the Vicks plant operated day and night to keep up with orders."

But did the VapoRub itself work? Over a century later, the verdict still isn't entirely clear. The Mayo Clinic argues that Vicks' isn't actually effective for decongestion — it just makes it feel like your nasal passageways are being cleared because of the bracing sensations it creates.

For some young children, Vicks may even be dangerous — though another recent study is more encouraging.


Responsible Spokane advertisers, of course, knew that a lot of the pharmaceutical ads were irresponsible. And so they ran their own rebuttals:

"Do not 'fall' for the many advertised 'SURE CURES' for influenza, or so-called tonics to build up body resistance," an ad for the Crescent department store cautioned amid all the other ads for sure cures and body resistance. "Remember, FRESH AIR, REGULAR MEALS, and ABUNDANT REST are what are needed."

This public service announcement, of course, had its own capitalist incentives: The flu advice was under an illustration of a handsome woman hawking "Charming Georgette Crepe Blouses for only $8.76."

The Owl Drug co-published a PSA that advised, among other things, to "keep your bowels open. Intestinal congestion invites disease." But it also sold brand names disinfectants like Platt's Chlorides" and reminded readers that "all Owl Drug Co. salesmen are especially informed as to get able to give you advice on sanitary measures."

Other ads were straight PSAs: On Oct. 22, 1918, 30 different Spokane businesses — including candy stores, dairies and four different undertaker companies — joined forces to fund a full-page ad in the Chronicle featuring the advice of the Spokane Health Department:
The Great Ad-Demic: How Spokane's businesses advertised in newspapers during the 1918 pandemic (19)
October 22, 1918, Spokane Daily Chronicle
In one sense, it sought to reassure, reiterating the idea that the Spanish flu wasn't some scary new disease, "just the old-fashioned grippe." But at the same time, it highlighted just how deadly the disease could be with a succession of recommendations.

A century before Make Your Own COVID-mask tutorials popped up on YouTube, these ads advised how to "Make Your Own Spanish flu" masks with four to six folds of cheesecloth or gauze.

"These masks must be kept clean, must be put on outside the sick room, must not be handled after they are tied on and must be boiled 30 minutes and thoroughly dried every time they are taken off," the advertisement advised.

The announcement also served as a help-wanted ad, sounding the alarm for more nurses to volunteer to fight the epidemic.

And when the 1918 presidential election was approaching, the Wentworth Clothing Houses took a specific election-era tack, printing a health department notice pleading with voters to avoid influenza-spreading crowds by voting early.

"Crowds at polling places are just as dangerous as crowds in other places," the Wentworth ad insisted.

Spokane's John W. Graham and Co. used the same language, while also stressing that, according to the Council of National Defense, Christmas shopping should be spread out and focused on the early hours to avoid congesting stores and streetcars.

The PSA from the Home Telephone and Telegraph Company had an additional ask: Don't use the telephone unless you absolutely have to.

The coronavirus may have slowed down internet speeds, but Spokane telephone companies had a bandwidth problem of a different sort: Turns out those rows of telephone operators packed close together got sick, handicapping the company. 

"The larger number of operators now absent because of illness makes it necessary for us to appeal to our people to restrict the use of the telephone," the ad reads "helping the service of war industries, hospitals and stricken homes of our cities."

Not every advice the local businesses gave amid the pandemic was accurate or helpful. The Whitehouse Company gave "'Flu' Hints" before describing the wool winter fashions: "Do not get in a panic if a nurse or attendant on an influenza case comes near you. He or she will not give you the disease while they themselves remain well."

In fact, as the CDC knows today, you can easily spread the flu before you know you're sick — or when you don't have any symptoms at all. 


Other local businesses, however, found a way to use the epidemic to sell more than just drugs.

Life insurance companies used the looming threat of death to paint an image of orphaned children and widowed women

"What if things go wrong?" A Nov. 10, 1918, Western Union Life ad read, "Suppose you should die — of Spanish influenza and other ailments—could your wife pay the mortgages without your income?" 

Horlick's Malted Milk touted its "REAL Food-Drink" as the perfect "diet during and after INFLUENZA, and claimed it had been "endorsed by physicians everywhere."
click to enlarge The Great Ad-Demic: How Spokane's businesses advertised in newspapers during the 1918 pandemic (15)
November 14, 1918, Spokesman-Review

And clothing retailers worked with this simple pitch: Keeping warm can keep you from getting sick, right? So why not sell the latest fashions on the basis of their flu-fighting powers? 

"Men avoid the flu by wearing good shoes that will keep your feet dry and warm," Dolby's Clothing explained.

"In a flu epidemic an ounce of preventive is worth a pound of cure," Hart Schaffner & Marx Clothes Shop explained in their ads for young men's overcoats.

Another key tactic to prevent getting the flu? Imperial Coffee from Gray Manufacturing in Spokane, of course.

"It's helpfulness as a preventative in infections and epidemical diseases under physicians' orders is well-established," the ad explained.

Of course, plenty of ads during the 1918 pandemic didn't have anything to do with the flu at all.

"DON'T risk disappointing someone who expects and needs Corona," an ad in November of 1918.

Of course, back then "Corona" didn't refer to disease or beer. It was a personal typewriter that was all in the vogue in 1918.

"Order your gift Corona now if you wish it for Christmas," the Corona Typewriter Sales Company advised in Spokane. It's advice that we do not recommend following today.

The Great Pumpkinfest @ Brick West Brewing Co.

Sun., Oct. 1, 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Fri., Oct. 6, 4-9 p.m., Sat., Oct. 7, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sun., Oct. 8, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...