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Flu Strikes ‘the Potrero’ as Part of 1918 Pandemic

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Photo: Courtesy of Peter Linenthal, Potrero Hill Archives Project

During World War I shipbuilding by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation was in such high demand that on July 4, 1918 four destroyers were launched from Pier 70. But there were reports of the spread of an influenza-like illness throughout the United States. 

By the beginning of October 1918, there were 169 cases of flu in San Francisco, which jumped to 2,000 by the middle of the month. An advertisement for medicine proclaimed, ‘We are not afraid of Germans or germs!’  

The City and County of San Francisco instituted measures to limit contagion, included an ordinance requiring face masks be worn, closure of schools and places of public amusement, and a ban on social gatherings. The Civic Center auditorium became a temporary hospital. 

In this photograph, mass is celebrated outdoors on the steps of St. Teresa’s Church on 19th and Tennessee streets. The church moved to 19th and Connecticut streets in 1924. 

The effectiveness of the thin gauze masks then in use – with the accompanying slogan, “Obey the laws, wear the gauze. Protect your jaws groom septic paws” – is debatable. Limiting exposure worked. On Yerba Buena Island, 6,000 quarantined military and their families had few infections and deaths. 

The measures were lifted and re-enacted as the contagion diminished and then spiked again. Had they been kept in place through the Spring of 1919, many lives would’ve been saved. When the pandemic ended in February 1919, 3,000 San Franciscans had died, along with more than a half-million Americans.

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