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What Drexel Does — and Doesn’t — Have From the 1918 Pandemic

April 20, 2021

One of the combs purchased by Naomi Ford, on top of the original holly wrapping paper. Photo credit: Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. Credit: Gift of Mrs. Anne Wright.
One of the combs purchased by Naomi Ford, on top of the original holly wrapping paper. Photo credit: Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. Credit: Gift of Mrs. Anne Wright.

Please visit the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website for the latest public health advisories. 

In the fall of 1918, a pregnant woman named Naomi Ford visited the Philadelphia department store Strawbridge & Clothier to buy Christmas presents: two combs, a corset bag and an embroidered frame-style handbag. She never gave her loved ones those gifts.

On that shopping day, Ford is believed to have contracted the deadly influenza that caused the 1918 flu pandemic, and she ultimately succumbed to the disease on Oct. 21.

Her grieving family stored her gifts in the attic of their New Jersey house, where the presents remained for 94 years — the combs still boxed and wrapped in holly wrapping paper, and a “For Cousin Helen” tag left on the box containing the handbag. It wasn’t until 2012 that those items, plus one of Ford’s dresses, were taken out and donated to Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC).

“We were initially interested in the items since they were from Strawbridge & Clothier,” said FHCC Director Clare Sauro. “However, when I asked the donor why they were never used, the heartbreaking story of Naomi Ford came forth and has been firmly attached ever since.”

Ford’s never-given gifts are now teachable examples of the trends and fashion from that time period. They also exemplify the very real and very painful impact of the 1918 pandemic.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of materials in Drexel’s archival collections that can tell similar stories about the 1918 pandemic.

Drexel University (then called the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry) was around during the 1918 pandemic. So was the Academy of Natural Sciences. So were the Hahnemann Medical College of Philadelphia and Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (which later combined and grew into Drexel’s College of Medicine).

How were those institutions affected by the 1918 pandemic and what did they save from that era? The short answer: it’s hard to say. The long answer (the rest of this article): it’s hard to say, and here’s why.

Those four institutions — and their current archival collections — are now united at Drexel. In addition to the FHCC, there’s The Drexel Collection, which holds the University’s art collection (in 1918, it still contained what is now the FHCC, which didn’t branch off until the 1950s as the Drexel Historic Costume Collection); Drexel University Archives, which preserves the University’s history; the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Academy Archives, which does the same for the Academy as well as its research scientists and their materials; and the Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections, which is the repository for the College of Medicine and its legacy institutions. Worth noting: there is also the Drexel Audio Archives, which holds the collection of recordings from the legendary Sigma Sound Studio, but those materials date from 1960–2000 … and no music was recorded about the 1918 pandemic. (There is, however, a recording of the Trammps’ 1970s song “Love Epidemic.”)

All of those collections have very little related to the 1918 pandemic. It really is hard to say why, though — it’s not like people left records of why they didn’t leave records.

The Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry's Domestic Science Class of 1919, as seen in the 1919 Lexerd Yearbook. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

Drexel’s current archivists can only guess why their predecessors did not preserve or collect material related to the pandemic. 

Maybe part of that reason is that institutional archives, like the Academy’s Archives, were focused internally, without much acknowledgement of outside impacts, as the Academy’s Brooke Dolan Archivist Jennifer Vess hypothesized.

It could be reflective of a trend of the time, one that wasn’t swayed due to the pandemic; Legacy Center Archivist Matt Herbison has found little day-to-day practice-of-medicine records existing from Drexel’s predecessor medical institutions during the decades surrounding 1918.

Or perhaps those institutional records were simply never collected — or, even, created in the first place.

Plus, it could be that they were, but materials and objects related to the 1918 pandemic just aren’t easily searchable (and therefore, findable) currently within these Drexel collections. Unfortunately, embarking on an archival treasure hunt to find them (especially during a pandemic with limited on-site research availability) would be incredibly time-consuming and unpredictable.

Here’s an example from University Archives archives technician Simon Ragovin: 

“Searching the Drexel University Archives’ internal database for keywords is only one step in locating potentially relevant material. Since archives are organized by collection, but not by subject, documents that provide important insights probably aren’t going to be found filed under ‘flu.’ Records from specific departments covering that time period are likely to include information about the impact of the 1918 pandemic on departments and individuals, and their responses to it. However, archival research is often time-consuming and can be very unpredictable, and so a researcher might spend a long time reading through boxes of papers and only find scraps of information.”

So while there is very little to be found now, it doesn’t mean there is nothing. Some examples:

Today’s current archivists do not want history to repeat itself during this 21st century pandemic, and are taking steps to add to their collections and/or use the pandemic to work on their collections.

Fox Historic Costume Collection

To document the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fox Historic Costume Collection is collecting items (you can contact if you have something you think fits the bill). Last term they acquired two homemade face masks from a Drexel professional staff member from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

A tie from Drexel University President John Fry included in the "2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell" exhibit. Photo credit: Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.

Earlier this year, the FHCC held a crowd-sourced online exhibition — its first-ever online exhibition — called 2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell, featuring photographs of objects and masks with special meaning for members of the Drexel community and their pandemic experience. University President John Fry, for example, chose a tie he wore with his suit when working, because, as he said, “I wanted to reassure our colleagues with my physical presence on campus and the way in which I dressed was a purposeful choice to lend a sense of normalcy to these uncertain times.”

Academy of Natural Sciences

In May 2020, Vess authored an Academy of Natural Sciences blog post, “Documenting the Moment,” urging readers to create and save digital and written journal entries, photographs and social media posts related to their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As an archivist, my thoughts go to documentation,” she wrote. “How will the historians of future generations learn about not only the responses of government, but the impact on individual lives? What can we do now to record our stories in ways that might end up in archives?”

Now, Academy Archives is working on plans to collect stories and possibly artifacts that reflect life one year into living with COVID-19. Already, at the beginning of the pandemic, a number of staff submitted photos and descriptions of how they were adapting to remote work, Vess said.

University Archives

In July 2020, University Archives launched its “Pandemic Stories” COVID-19 documentation project to encourage Drexel faculty, professional staff, students and alumni to donate a diverse array of materials representing what they have experienced during the pandemic. It’s also collecting internal notices and reports and external news media coverage related to the University and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a chance to write history while it’s happening,” University Archivist Matthew Lyons said in a Libraries story about the Pandemic Stories project. “In University Archives, we have received a bunch of questions about how Drexel responded to the influenza pandemic in 1918, and there’s surprisingly little documentation about that. We want to leave a better record this time.”

As a “centerpiece” of that project, University Archives is planning an online audio exhibit for this summer featuring a series of oral history interviews about the COVID-19 pandemic. These interviews were conducted by Drexel students (as part of the “COVID-19” honors course offered by the Pennoni Honors College this past summer, which was taught by former History Department head and professor Scott Knowles, PhD) who asked members of the Drexel community, plus friends and family members, to share their experiences of this time.
Additionally, University Archives has been saving all official announcements from the University related to the pandemic (such as those sent by Fry, the University's Return Oversight Committee and other administrative offices and University leaders) as email archives, and expanding its existing web archiving to include Drexel websites and articles related to COVID-19, such as the Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus website. The public can access all of those website archives (including pandemic-related pages) here, or search on (search for a keyword like “COVID-19,” and filter by “Material Type” on the left side of the page to select “Archived Websites”).

The Legacy Center

“From the ‘In Their Own Words’ DrexelNow story, we saw that the main ‘voice’ we have to tell the story of the 1918 pandemic is that of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, but two important things we don’t have in the Legacy Center records are (1) day-to-day details during the crisis and its aftermath and (2) the reactions and reflections of individuals living their lives during the pandemic. Today, we’re working to capture all three of these levels: institutional big-picture, institutional day-to-day, and individuals,” said Herbison.

WMCP Dean Martha Tracy, MD 1904, in a 1918 photograph. Tracy helped guide WMCP during the 1918 pandemic and treated patients. Photo courtesy Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine.

The Legacy Center is working to document Drexel’s public voice of the 2020 pandemic that doesn’t exist from the 1918 pandemic (which, being the 21st century, can be documented through websites and emails rather than the annual reports, ledger books and letters used exclusively a century ago). This captures what's available on Drexel's website and documents the information that Drexel wants to share externally and internally.

In particular, Legacy Center staff are focusing their efforts on web-archiving: in April 2020, archivists began “webcrawling,” or browsing and indexing, various Drexel websites with COVID-related content, like the College of Medicine’s news page (now every day instead of every week) and the “Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus” page (every day), as well as Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities page with COVID-connected resource lists (increased from every three months to every day). The Legacy Center is also saving and preserving day-to-day information shared by the College of Medicine to its faculty, professional staff and student audiences, to be accessed in the future when they can be used without privacy risks.

Later, when the pandemic is over or winding down, the Legacy Center hopes to capture the voice of individuals working directly with the COVID crisis, such as medical professionals and medical students in the College of Medicine.

“We will want to capture their memories and experiences while it's still relatively fresh for people, but without crowding them or adding to workload of anxiety at a time of crisis,” said Herbison. “By holding off, we realize we're capturing a different kind of record — more of a reflection than a reaction, and that affects the granularity of the historical record. But for the day-to-day and individual-voice records, these are fine details that will be of huge interest to researchers. We know this because researchers using archives are so frequently looking for these personal details and want to understand the conversations and progress that led to certain institutional decisions.”

The Drexel Collection

The Drexel Collection (and thus the FHCC) doesn’t have anything related to the pandemic that was collected during or immediately after 1918, though it’s not known why. The curator during the pandemic, Elizabeth C. Niemann, left no documentation; she was the curator from 1914–1934.

At this time, The Drexel Collection has not made plans to collect anything related to the pandemic, but does continue to collect materials within its collecting scope and has doubled the number of pieces from the Collection available online. Plans to expand the scope of the Collection to include more materials relevant to the community and underrepresented artists are in discussion.

Masks donated to the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.

What You Can Do

If you’re reading this DrexelNow story, then you’re likely part of the Drexel community and could contribute to this current important chapter of University history by creating, collecting and donating relevant materials to University Archives. You can see what other Dragons have shared in the FHCC's 2020: The Clothes We Wore and the Stories They Tell exhibit.

And if you are a Drexel alumnus, you can sign up to see some of the archivists quoted in this story discuss the scope of their collections and their findings related to the 1918 pandemic (some of which can also be found in the above DrexelNow stories), during the University’s Alumni Weekend 2021, which will take place  May 20–23, 2021. The panel, “Drexel’s Response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” will take place on May 21 from 12–1 p.m.

If you’re interested in reading in further detail what is known about the 1918 pandemic as remembered by those who lived through it and as documented in the University’s collections, you can read the DrexelNow articles about the faculty and students working on the frontlines from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and the stuents attending the then-Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry.

Beyond that, you will likely remember this COVID-19 pandemic for the rest of your life. Consider documenting, saving and sharing your experiences from this historic time — you never know when that could be very useful in the upcoming years (or decades) for you, your family and/or future generations.

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