Another Day, Another Pandemic

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.

Flu Soup Kitchen
Volunteers ladle soup to children whose parents were stricken by the flu (Bettmann photo)

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.

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.

Washington DC Central High School (later Cardoza HS) https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/

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.

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