This post was originally published in 2014, and it has been updated for the coronavirus era.

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)
, Girl Scout History Project

Invalid Cook, 1916

That’s “invalid” as somebody with a persistent disease, not something “not valid.”

(Photo from Vintage GS Museum)

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 had mastered the art of making soup, broth, custard, gelatins, and a formidable-sounding substance labelled “kumyss” in their Handbook. Now they worked from dawn to dark cooking gallons of these very basic meals.

, Girl Scout History Project

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 DC Central High School (later Cardoza HS)

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.

, Girl Scout History Project
Image from The Economy Administration Cook Book, 1913

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

Is it a coincidence that the latest virus arrived at the same time as Girl Scout cookies? Girls Scouts to the rescue again!

DISCLAIMER: There is no scientific proof that Girl Scout cookies prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But they don’t hurt, either…

©2014, 2020 Ann Robertson

8 responses to “Another Day, Another Pandemic”

  1. Marianna Gilbertson Avatar
    Marianna Gilbertson

    Again– you made me look. I pulled out my copy of “How Girls Can Help Their Country” and read about the “Invalid Cooking”. My copy did not have the old badge pictures but I noticed that in comparing this to my 1929 Girl Scout handbook, that this was replaced with a clear badge called “Home Nurse”. The badge is a symbol of a hospital bed. Thanks again Ann for the relevant history of GSUSA.

    1. Thanks, Marianna!

  2. Mary Steed Ewell Avatar
    Mary Steed Ewell

    Thank you, hope you sent to the Post! MS Ewell

  3. Ann, a couple of evenings ago, I spent several hours paging through all your past posts trying to find this one, and then trying to figure out how I could copy it to another page. I was thinking that, maybe (if someone could teach me how), I could start a blog(?) for Scouts in my council with history trivia and stories as well as history detective projects that they could try and solve with the help of gscatalogs or the virtual museum on line. This would give the girls something GS they could do while their troops weren’t meeting. I also thought they might like to see how Girl Scouts helped out in the last pandemic. How could I post a link to this page of your blog? I haven’t gotten anything started yet; at the moment I’m just lining up the possibilities.

    I really enjoy your blog posts. You pick some unusual and interesting topics!

  4. Hi Karen, Thank you for your kind comments! You should be able to copy the blog’s URL and paste it in an email, tweet, or Facebook page. I use WordPress for my blog and I can see why it is so popular. They have samples and templates that make it easy to get started. Keep me posted!

  5. […] the story isn’t entirely grim. During the epidemic, local Girl Scouts set up kitchens at Central High School (now Cardozo High School) and an M Street YWCA to feed people sick with […]

  6. […] Girl Scouts who earned the Invalid Cook badge had “mastered the art of making soup, broth, custard, gelatins, and a formidable-sounding substance labelled ‘kumyss’ in their Handbook.” They used these skills to cook gallons of simple meals for influenza patients in the D.C. area, with additional volunteers marshaled by Troop leaders to deliver meals around the city. […]

  7. […] the 1918 pandemic, girl scouts helped feed the sick and poor in Washington, DC. Read more about the efforts of girl scouts, then and […]

Leave a Reply


%d bloggers like this: