Documenting the Present for the Future

by Natalie Snoyman

The past is not only the long ago; it is the here, the current of humanity. Too often we frame history in the past tense rather than on the then, now and forever of history. History is a continuum, not just a study of the past. During tumultuous times, the past can provide comfort and clarity. As we reflect on what came before us, those events allow us to interpret what we are presently experiencing. It might be unsurprising to learn, then, that if you perform a quick search for the terms “pandemic,” “1918,” or “influenza” in the MARINet catalog, you’ll find yourself on a waiting list. All books, eBooks, and audiobooks concerning pandemics – particularly the 1918 influenza pandemic – are currently in use.

There are many similarities to be observed between the 1918 flu and the COVID-19 pandemic. Like COVID-19, the 1918 flu was a pandemic in the truest sense in that it affected not just highly populated communities in metropolises but also more remote ones. It’s estimated that 500 million people may have been infected with the virus between 1918-1919, with 675,000 deaths in the United States alone.

In order to understand how Mill Valley was affected by the 1918 pandemic, I turned to our collection documenting the city’s local history. Our historical photograph collection features moving portraits of Mill Valley residents wearing gauze masks, captured by local photographer Raymond Coyne.

"Two Men Wearing Masks," Photo by Raymond Coyne. Courtesy of Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library. © The Annual Dipsea Race.
"Locust Avenue, masks on," Photo by Raymond Coyne. Courtesy of Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library. © The Annual Dipsea Race.

Our run of the Mill Valley Record is a particularly useful source of formal documentation, providing reported cases of the disease (84 in November 1918; 24 in January 1919) and ordinances set in place by the state, many of which ring true to our current situation. The Record also provides some context for Raymond Coyne’s photographs. In November 1918 the paper published an article explaining that four persons, Chris Armbuster, Frank Mackenzie, R.I. Wisler, and Walter Hinckly were arrested and subsequently summoned before a judge for failing to wear a mask. The men were fined $30 each.

On January 24, 1919, the Mill Valley Record published an article addressing how the Mill Valley community could act responsibly during the pandemic. The article, titled “To Mask or not to Mask,” states that the State Board of Health acknowledged “the difficulty encountered in framing intelligent quarantine measures as well as difficulty in making diagnoses, both of which factors make it imperative that each citizen should be alive to his responsibility in relation to his fellow citizens.” The article also stresses the seriousness of preventative measures, including wearing gauze masks and isolating from others, both “commonsense demands of the situation.” Interestingly, the local paper also addressed the public’s referring to the influenza epidemic as the “Spanish Flu,” jabbing that if Americans “do not take care the epidemic will become so widespread throughout the United States that soon we shall hear the disease called ‘American’ influenza.”

The newspaper is also a strong source of educational propaganda dispersed throughout the States at the time, including the following two examples:

Mill Valley Record, Volume XX, No. 33, October 19, 1918.
Mill Valley Record, Volume XX, No. 24, 21 December 1918.

Turning to the Mill Valley Public Library’s minutes log housed in the History Room, we learn how the Library responded to the pandemic. During the month of October 1918 the Library was open for 16 days out of 31, closing on October 21 for an indefinite amount of time to comply with the regulations set by the Board of Health. Despite the Library being closed, we learn Sybil Nye, the Librarian, went to collect the mail every day and visited the Library every other day to see that “all [was] in order.” The Library reopened on Monday, November 18, 1918 after being closed for four weeks owing to the virus.

While much information regarding the 1918 flu pandemic is available through the History Room’s varied resources, what we lack are the personal stories of those who lived through it. Newspapers provide a sense of continuity and demonstrate how the community was affected via ordinances and death rates but it is the voices of individual Mill Valley residents that are sorely missed. In an effort to ensure your stories will be told for future generations, we invite you to contribute your experience to the History Room’s permanent Collection. Please visit the History Room’s COVID-19 Archive webpage to learn more about this initiative.

As we know and as we have observed, the past is never past. Rather, it allows us to understand the present. Years from now, we will be able to look back and read about how lives were altered indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic is being documented formally through news channels and governmental orders, what we may not have access to are the diaries and personal details of those who survive the pandemic. Like the 1918 flu, the COVID-19 pandemic is a global, collective experience; one we are all confronting on very personal levels. Capturing the moments, reflections, and different situations we are in will contribute to a collective bank that will later provide the necessary, more personal side to any research concerning this pandemic for generations to come. You, the Mill Valley community, are participants in local history and your stories and experiences should be preserved for the future.

If we do not document the personal, collective experience, how will we know how the world responded to this crisis? How will we read about how the world responded to the situation, and learn about what worked and what didn’t? How will we know how people from all walks of life experienced this situation and understand how they made it through uncertain times while altering societal and cultural norms? Ultimately, collecting your individual stories will allow us to recall the deep influence that communities have on history.