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From the archives, influenza 1918: “Eat healthy—and change your underwear!”

October 28th, 1918 the Forverts published a curious ad on their 6th page—in an issue featuring, above the masthead, a one thousand dollar reward for any information leading to the arrest of the attempted murder of butcher workers’ leader Isidore Korn. He had been stabbed only that last Wednesday, while addressing a socialist gathering on the corner of Madison and Gouverneur Streets on the Lower East Side.

That mysterious public service ad featured “rules” for eating during the influenza epidemic. Spoiler alert: meat was not on the list of permitted foods. “We’re publishing several important rules to help your digestive tract as well as the rest of your body during the current influenza epidemic,” the ad promised, in a time way before anybody talked probiotics and gut health.


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So here are some prescient rules from 1918, in order of importance as originally published.

Eat and drink cleanly. No one’s ever gotten sick from too little eating, but from overeating—they sure have. Aside from that, it’s a well known fact that gorging has cut down many lives. Eat plain foods and stay away from spicy ones.

Milk. Soup. A variety of vegetables. Baked or cooked fish—are the healthiest foods.

The less you eat, the better. Eat as little meat as possible. Truthfully many doctors recommend not eating it at all.

In the last few weeks the New York Board of Health published their official bulletin supported by the city’s best doctors. In it, those stricken with influenza were advised not to eat any meat at all. Eat more vegetables and fish during the epidemic than eggs and meat.

Those with a vested interest in the sale of meat in the city were encouraged to rumormonger that fish is unhealthy to eat during the epidemic. That’s a huge destructive mistake.

Fish is widely recognized as the most important food for all humanity and it’s been statistically and factually proven that amongst all the various classes, all kinds of folks tend to eat fish. Those huge Norweigian fishing fleets rarely suffer from cancer or kidney or heart disease. Epidemics in these types of groups also don’t take root. Populations that eat more meat than fish are more susceptible to epidemics and to a lot of other diseases.

The takeaway here is that fish remains an important food especially those kinds that the Jewish population tends to easily procure. They are available fresh and trembling straight out of the rivers that constantly stream with clean fresh pulsing waters.

It’s a huge mistake and a deadly one at that, so pay attention to this: many doctors have managed to get their patients to knock back a bit of whiskey or brandy as stimulants during their illness. That’s led many to understand that as an epidemic rages, it’s necessary to guzzle a knak yankev (a belt of the hard stuff). There couldn’t be a more false, destructive suggestion. This surely helps the liquor salesmen, but this ridiculous fake news can only harm the general public.

In conclusion, here are the most important rules:

Drink plenty of clean, plain water. Sleep and work only in well-ventilated rooms with windows as open as possible. Keep your body clean and disinfected. Don’t travel in crowded streetcars and keep your distance from those who are coughing and sneezing and who don’t carry a handkerchief.

As if not stressful enough to follow some dietary guidelines better suited to aesthetes, earlier that month, the Forverts had given readers some intensive housekeeping guidelines at the bottom of Ab Cahan’s October 6th editorial titled Tidiness and Influenza.

To cut to the chase, he politely suggested changing underwear with more frequency and regular bathing.

Here’s Cahan, unfiltered: “One of the most important ways of staving off the influenza epidemic is cleanliness. Everyone’s advised to change underwear more frequently and to keep their body absolutely germ-free. Every time you eat, wash your hands and see that you don’t pile up garbage and dirt at home.

It’s important to keep things tidy, all year long. But in these times it’s not merely a necessity but a serious question of health and illness. Of life and death.

Cleanliness and fresh air! Don’t sleep in stuffy rooms! Keep your bedroom windows open! But make sure you don’t catch cold! This grippe is more serious than we thought” he ended.

And as for Isidore Korn and the butcher workers—the Forverts kept up the weeks long front page search for his aggressors, despite pushback from local pols and lackadaisical detectives, none of whom were enthusiastic about rise of the Jewish workers’ political might. The butcher workers may or may not have followed the Forverts’ rules for less meat eating and better digestion during the influenza epidemic. They had bigger fish to fry.

The artwork for this piece is titled “Red Pepper” and was generously provided by Sheila McManus. More of her work can be found here.

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