City Life

How My Grandmother Survived the Spanish Flu

March 30, 2020 | by Paul Steinke

Paul Steinke’s grandmother Bessie Mayer was a teenager when the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 brought Philadelphia to its knees. | Image courtesy of Paul Steinke

My maternal grandmother, Bessie J. Mayer, was a source of wonder to me. Born in 1900, she lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the loss of her husband to cancer before she turned 50, the suicide of one of her brothers, and other setbacks large and small over her 92-year life span. Yet she remained relentlessly optimistic in the face of it all. She often told me, “You do what you gotta do.” She raised two daughters including my mother, Ruth, was elevated Worthy Matron in the Order of the Eastern Star, served as an elder at Lawndale United Methodist Church, and looked 20 years younger than her age until she declined at the start of her 10th decade.

Another ordeal that my Gram survived was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, now much on our minds as we struggle to deal with the worst global outbreak of disease since that time.

Dobson Mill in 1884. From History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 by Scharf & Westcott, 1884. | Image courtesy of the 
Philadelphia Water Department

In 1918, still just a teenager, Gram took a factory job at John & James Dobson Carpet Mill, a textile complex on Ridge Avenue in East Falls. Dobson Mills’ specialty was churning out blankets for the military. Business was booming due to the Great War, and Gram thought it her patriotic duty to go to work in support of the war effort. Gram rode the No. 60 streetcar on Allegheny Avenue across town to get to work from her family’s home in Kensington.

Just two weeks after she started, Gram got sick. It was the Spanish flu. She never went back to work. And she never was paid for the two weeks she did work at Dobson Mills.

Years later, when I was a child I would grill my grandmother on life in the “olden days.” She told me her Dobson Mills story as she recounted the many people she knew who succumbed to influenza during that terrible year.

View from the Reading Railroad’s Richmond Branch bridge of the Dobson Mills entrance and complex. Date unknown. | Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Fast forward to 1990. The developer Willard Rouse was well on his way to converting Dobson Mills, which had closed in 1928, into rental apartments. I noticed an ad in the Northeast Breeze newspaper stating that Rouse Company was looking for people who had worked at Dobson Mills to participate in an upcoming dedication ceremony for the new residential complex. I phoned the company’s office and told them about my grandmother’s story. They loved it. When dedication day rolled around in April of 1990 they sent a limousine to pick up Gram in Lawndale, her home for 55 years. She was whisked over to Dobson Mills, now rebranded as “The Chelsea.”

Gram, approaching 90, was all dressed up, her hair dyed chestnut brown as always. She donned sunglasses as she mounted the stage to address the assembled crowd. She looked like a million bucks. Everyone leaned in as Gram told her story about commuting from Kensington on the trolley, toiling at the Dobson Mills, then getting sick with Spanish flu and never going back. And never getting paid. Bill Rouse then joined her at the podium and produced an enlarged check made out to Gram for $33. He said it represented two week’s wages for a textile worker in 1918. My Gram, always good at math and wise to the ways of the world, took one look at the check, looked up at Mr. Rouse and said, “What, no interest?” The crowd roared with laughter, then uproarious applause. The newspapers covered the story the next day, with photos of my beaming grandmother next to a smiling Bill Rouse. And she never did get any interest on her way-back pay.

Gram faced more than her fair share of tough challenges throughout her life and overcame them all, including the Spanish flu.

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About the Author

Paul Steinke Paul Steinke serves as executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, a membership-based organization whose mission is to promote the appreciation, adaptive re-use and development of the Philadelphia region’s historic buildings, communities and landscapes. He started in this role in June 2016 after serving on the organization’s board of directors for many years. A lifelong Philadelphian, Paul holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and Economics from Pennsylvania State University, and pursued an MBA at Drexel University. Paul serves as board co-chair of the William Way LGBT Community Center and is on the board of directors of The Fund for the Water Works. He lives in University City with his husband and partner of 22 years, David Ade, an architect with a practice based in Center City.

18 Comments:

  1. Davis says:

    Thanks for this good piece, Paul.

    1. Diane haddon says:

      I love hearing this again and again! Grammy was an interesting and smart woman and she raised 2 fabulous daughters who had some great sons!
      Thank you Paul!

    2. Irma says:

      What a wonderful story. Thank you!

  2. Dan coyle says:

    Wow, Paul. That was wonderful. So sorry I was never to know much about my grandparents.

  3. Karen Butler says:

    Paul,
    What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing it.
    Karen Butler

  4. Tammy says:

    Thank you for sharing💕👏

  5. Kathy (Bunt) Truesdale says:

    Mr Steinke, I enjoyed your personal story about your grandmother Bessie Mayer. I attended Lawndale Methodist Church until 1960 and lived for 19 years in Lawndale at the intersection of Oakley St and Longshore Ave. I most likely met your grandmother while participating in their annual Tom Thumb Wedding event. I have that group photo.

  6. Patrick OConnell says:

    My Mother was born in 1917 and often referenced the flu of 1918 as she called it.It was a badge of accomplishment that she ,and her family survived.Did your Grandmother ever discuss how she survived?

  7. Rob N says:

    Great story, Paul. So nice you spent time talking and listening to your grandma.

  8. Bill drobins says:

    Awesome story Paul!

  9. Harry Magee says:

    Thanks for sharing….

  10. Jeff Patterson says:

    Paul, thanks for relating this great story. Well told. And Gram was quite correct; she was due $285.64!

  11. Maryellen says:

    Touching, informative and relevant. Thanks so. Much for sharing this.

  12. Barbara Kaplan says:

    Really enjoyed this, Paul.
    Always helps us to gain a better understanding of history to hear about a personal connection. The anecdote about Bill Rouse was the icing on the cake!

  13. Paula says:

    What a wonderful woman! Inspiring. We can do this. I can also imagine the look on Bill Rouse’s face when she asked about the interest. We clashed over municipal planning many times…once he got so aggravated he walked to the corner and turned his back to the room. He met his match in your grandmother! My nana was a nurse at Abington then, she would not speak about it.

  14. Tony Soprano says:

    What a beautiful story Paul. I enjoy all of your posts. It shows your true love for our city.

  15. Jim Clark says:

    I do not know much at all about my grandparents other than 3 of them came here from Manchester England, and one was already here, a Native American. My parents were born in 1910 so they survived the Spanish flu too. They were a tight lipped bunch and never spoke about family history at all. I would love to know how my maternal grandparents met. One coming from England and one a Native American and meeting in Philadelphia! Story is probably pretty interesting but I will never know it. Yours is a nice story, thank you for sharing.

  16. Tim Kerner says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this story, Paul. We can all be glad that Gram survived the flu!

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