Why People Didn’t Talk on the Phone During the 1918 Flu

The 1918 pandemic caused by the infamous Spanish Flu brought about many changes in the way people lived and communicated. We may be spoiled by technology today as we can just pick up the phone and talk to someone across the world in an instant, but things weren’t always this easy during a health crisis. In fact, back in 1918, people didn’t even talk on the phone, and here’s why…

The Spanish Flu in the United States

switchboard operator
Why People Didn’t Talk on the Phone During the 1918 Flu Epidemic

The H1N1 virus infected around 500 million people all over the world with a death rate of 10%. The phone was well in use by American households by the time the flu started spreading so, the reason people didn’t talk over it wasn’t that they didn’t have a device. Around one-third of all households had a telephone. The switchboard operation system was actually to blame…

The Problem Was the System

Phones back in 1918 used an old system of switchboard operation. This means telephone communications depended on human operators who connected their calls to whoever they were calling. Before the pandemic, major companies like Bell Telephone used to promote the telephone as a great invention that allows you to keep in touch with your loved ones even if they are sick. However, their marketing message suffered the reality of the Spanish Flu.

 switchboard operators during the 1918 flu
Why People Didn’t Talk on the Phone During the 1918 Flu Epidemic

Since there were many people who worked as switchboard workers, and many of them got sick with the flu, it became impossible for companies to serve the same number of calls with a reduced workforce. That’s when they began mailing cards to customers asking them to stop using their phones. People were urged to only use the phone in cases of an emergency or for a medical follow up. People who called to ask for the time of day were strongly frowned upon.