Originally published in 2014

The Washington Post recently compared the influenza epidemic of 1918 to the current Ebola outbreak, but the newspaper left out the Girl Scout part of the story.

From late 1918 through early 1919, a particularly nasty strain of flu killed 50 million people worldwide and some 500,000 in the United States. Washington, DC, was particularly hard hit because the city was overflowing with federal workers (“living three or four to a room in private homes and boarding houses”) and soldiers passing through on their way to or from the World War I front.

The Girl Scouts had already mobilized to sell sandwiches, cake, and ice cream to soldiers and war workers.  One girl, Edna Schwartz, recalled making stacks and stacks of egg and ham sandwiches and setting up a stand near the Corcoran Gallery of Art at lunchtime. They put those skills to work as a new enemy attacked.

, Girl Scout History Project
Volunteers ladle soup to children whose parents were stricken by the flu (Bettmann photo)

When the Spanish flu brought Washington to a near-standstill in October 1918, the Girl Scouts set up a Diet Kitchen first at Central High School, then later at 1101 M Street NW. Girls who had earned their Invalid Cook badge worked from dawn to dark making soup, broth, custard, and gelatins. Volunteers delivered the hot meals to patients throughout the city. Leaders had to make a public appeal for drivers and containers to meet the demand. Some 2,180 patients were served from the high school and a total of 7,821 patients at the peak of the epidemic. Troop 60 put on a play and sang songs, charging 10 cents a head, and raised $25 for supplies.

, Girl Scout History Project
Washington’s Central (later Cardozo) High School became a Girl Scout Diet Kitchen in October 1918. General Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces visited the school a few months later (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress).

The Diet Kitchen was such a success that Susie Root Rhodes, DC Supervisor of Playgrounds, asked the Girl Scouts to also distribute soup at playgrounds in two of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. This meal often was the only meal, certainly the only hot meal, that many of these children received each day while their mothers worked or were ill.

Ms. Rhodes credited the Girl Scouts with saving the lives of people too poor to afford doctors and preventing malnourished children from succumbing to influenza.

©2014 Ann Robertson

4 responses to “Girls Scouts, the Great War, and the Great Flu”

  1. Fascinating to read – I’ve been researching a lot of the history of Girl Guides in the UK, and get a lot of queries about what UK Guides did in World War 1 – great to get an international perspective.

    1. Thank you Leslie!

  2. […] Until I’m back at my computer full time, please revisit this article from 2014 about the Girl Scouts and the influenza epidemic of 1918. […]

  3. Reference to the Girl Scouts who had earned their Invalid Cook badge worked dawn to dusk brings to mind that when a girl wore a badge it showed she was proficient in that area, not just experience it once. It is hard for girls to be helpful today because of the rules being put into effect, but it is truly enjoyable when you read about the ones who find a way to safely help.

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