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Letters from the Homefront: ‘Déjà Vu, All Over Again’

The following “Letters from the Homefront” account is part of our new initiative, Collecting in Quarantine. Inspired by the poignant letters in the Maryland Historical Society collection documenting past adversities from the Spanish flu of 1918, to the Annapolis yellow fever epidemics of 1793 and 1800, MdHS is calling on Marylanders to send their personal stories of how the pandemic is impacting their lives.

Interior view of grocery store
With the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continuing to rise, Americans have been advised to avoid trips out for the next two weeks, even to the grocery store. Pictured here is an interior view of a grocery store at an earlier, brighter time. Employee and shopper, photograph by Paul S. Henderson, February 1953, HEN.00.B1-133. Paul Henderson Photograph Collection, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Center for History and Culture.

March 20, 2020 – On this day, Jacqueline writes:

2020 is a Leap Year. This February 29th I sent a text message to a cousin living in Snow Hill: “Hi Bonnie Marie, Today Uncle Allen would have been 25.” She texted back that her father Allen Parker, who was born on February 29, 1920, celebrated his birthday on both February 28 and March 1 in the years when he had no actual day for celebration. As a little girl, she thought it unfair that her father had two birthday parties and she had only one.

It’s especially odd to remember Uncle Allen this year. He was born one hundred years ago during the “Spanish Flu” epidemic that followed World War I. His father Allen Sr. died on February 27th; his mother Daisy on March 1st. The disease had spread through the family unbelievably quickly. Allen Sr. died after having been sick for only 48 hours. Daisy had been sick for just four days. No one expected that the baby, born prematurely, would survive. His parents’ obituary actually stated: “At this writing the baby is reported to be dying.”

Conditions on Hoopers Island, in southwestern Dorchester County, where Uncle Allen was born had been horrible for months. On January 11, 1919, an article entitled “’Flu’ Grips Hoopers Island: Cambridge Forms Relief Committee to Aid Sufferers,” published in the Baltimore Sun, stated that influenza was strangling the community there. So many people were sick that children had no milk to drink and no one to take care of them. One doctor had to treat 800 sick patients — almost half of the island’s population. In a rural area where roads were poor, that was next to impossible. The Sun reported, “People are no longer able to cope.”

From January 1918 to December 1920 so many people died throughout the world that they could not be accurately counted. Estimates ranged from 50 to 130 million casualties. In the United States approximately 675,000 people died.

Here we are one hundred years later (ironically also a Leap Year) faced with another pandemic. The coronavirus, which first showed itself in China two months ago, has now spread around the world. Governor Larry Hogan has acted swiftly to prevent its spread here in Maryland. Large public events have been canceled; schools, restaurants, movie theaters, and shopping malls have been closed; and he has encouraged people, especially the elderly, to self-quarantine and avoid travel. Many people are working from home.

Grocery stores and pharmacies are still open. On Thursday morning, my husband and I ventured out for the first time in more than a week. At BJ’s Warehouse, every customer was given hand sanitizer and the handle of every grocery cart was wiped with disinfectant. They also lined up customers for checking out so that people could remain more safely apart. All BJ’s employees were wearing gloves. The process was orderly and efficient. We were impressed. Weis Grocery had sanitary wipes at each entrance and gloved employees, but everything else seemed the same — except for the barren shelves where there used to be such items as toilet tissue, vinegar, and flour. At CVS, everything seemed as it had been before the epidemic, but with fewer customers and a sign announcing that “This location does not test for COVID-19.”

The Washington Post has announced that it took two months to reach the first 100,000 cases of the virus but that we have reached the second 100,000 in just a week. In Maryland, today, we have 107 confirmed cases including one five-year-old child. One person has died.

The surge, no doubt, has not yet come. Hopefully, this time, unlike one hundred years ago, we all can cope.

Please note: The views, information, and opinions expressed and shared on the underbelly through the Collecting in Quarantine project do not necessarily represent those of the Maryland Historical Society. Our staff does not verify for accuracy the information contained within these submissions or edit the content beyond minor modifications for formatting. Just like the historic letters in our collection, each letter presents the writer’s own perspective. The primary purpose of this series, with the permission of contributors, is to share and collect the experiences of Marylanders living through the COVID-19 crisis at this moment in time.

To learn more about the Collecting in Quarantine project and how to share a story of your own, click here.