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Influenza 1918, a look back: Homes Must Now Be Heated, Says Board of Health

FYI: Reading the Forverts of early winter 1918, with the influenza epidemic ramping up and an election forthcoming, the paper sounds eerily like today’s news. The Forverts reported nearly 3,000 cases of influenza in the city and a commissioner who thought it wasn’t serious (10/10/18). At the tail end of the article, they placed an inhouse public service announcement encouraging women to get their sisters in their tenements registered to vote. A few days later, founding editor Ab Cahan managed to mash up these two critical points affecting his immigrant majority working class readership. If you want better living conditions, like heating in your tenement rooms—vote the socialist ticket. It was life and death, he wrote.

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Forverts 10/18/1918



[Editorial: Ab Cahan]

The commissioner of the board of health released a statement yesterday saying that houses where the population currently lives must be warm. Here’s his statement: ‘Every home in the city must now be heated. It’s dangerous for people healing from the influenza and from pneumonia to be in cold houses. Cold houses also cause illness.’

It’s redundant to try and analyze this statement. Landlords’ excuses this year include wanting to save on coal due to patriotism and so they’re delaying offering steam heat until November first. A few weeks ago there was a widely read item in the press about the coal-director ordering there to be no steam prior to November: a report that was later denied.

It’s not an issue of discomfort but a question of life and death for hundreds of thousands of people. The influenza disease is spreading ever faster. For every dollar they insist on saving on coal, a father of children, a mother of babies pays with their lives. But what are they worth? As long as there’s any grounds, they find a way to fake out the tenement dwellers.

While landlords bind their tenants to suffer sickness and death, they also don’t forget to suck the last dollars out of them by raising the rent. We hear bitter complaints daily from groups of tenants of the city’s various neighborhoods that landlords once again want to raise rents. Why not? Landlords well know that housing is nearly impossible to find currently. And they also know no one is representing tenants’ interests. There’s no one to defend them.

The lives of the masses are chaotic. Profits are higher than ever. Doctors scream about the crowded streetcars and the elevated and subways helping spread the epidemic. To them the subway company offers a cynical response presenting data showing how subway workers are falling ill way less than streetcar workers. City representatives, under protest, open an investigation. They present new directives but companies laugh them off. They know who they are dealing with and that with those folks, and in the current situation, their opinions and interests matter the most.

And landlords know that secret code as well. They know that the health commissioner’s order for houses to be heated now, is insubstantial. They know when the board of health gives orders that work against them, it does so just as a matter of fact and that they can quite simply act as if they know nothing about it.

The question is: what do the tenants think about the whole situation? What will they do with only themselves for help?

There’s but one effective mode for them—to elect lawmakers and city representatives who will consider working masses’ lives, as more important than the profiteering landlords and car, train and subway companies. A huge vote for the socialist party in the next elections, a vote for socialist congress, assembly members and state senators—that’s the only power the suffering tenants can win beyond the landlords.

When several dozen socialists claim their seats in Albany and another several dozen socialists are in city hall then landlords will cease creating such scandals. They understand their own business quite well. They know who can freely be taken advantage of, and who not.


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