Busy Signal: Why Talking on the Phone Was a No-No During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Americans had to think twice before picking up the telephone during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Americans had to think twice before picking up the telephone during the 1918 flu pandemic.
ArisSu/iStock via Getty Images

Of the many compromises and concessions people have had to make during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve at least been able to remain in contact with others by telephone. It might be a minor consolation given the lack of in-person social activity, but we’d certainly miss it if it were gone.

Americans during the 1918 flu pandemic weren’t quite as fortunate. In a story for Fast Company, Harry McCracken explains that residents were often dissuaded from using the phone, and it turns out that the old system of switchboard operation was to blame.

The H1N1 virus, which ultimately infected 500 million people globally and was responsible for 50 million deaths, was spreading across the United States at a time when roughly one-third of American households had telephones. Prior to the pandemic, companies like Bell Telephone promoted the invention as a way of keeping in touch with loved ones even if diseases like diphtheria or smallpox were forcing them apart. But the rampaging nature of the flu proved to be a poor fit for the analog phone systems, which depended on human operators connecting a call between two parties. Like any workforce, employees were susceptible to getting sick, which led to a reduction in their numbers. Reduced call capacity followed.

When the New York Telephone Company saw the number of switchboard workers cut in half, they began mailing cards to customers urging them to avoid using their phones. Idle chatter was discouraged. Instead, callers were asked to limit communication to emergencies or to follow up on medical needs. People calling to ask for the time of day—a common habit of the time—were frowned upon.

“Don’t telephone unless it is absolutely necessary,” one New York Telephone Company notice read.

“It is of the utmost importance that calls for doctors, drug stores, and all emergency calls arising from the epidemic be handled efficiently and it is the earnest desire of the company to do this,” a Piedmont Telephone and Telegraph Company message read. In other words—stop calling to ask what time it is.

Operators endured long after the pandemic, with the occupation remaining part of the telephone industry through the 1980s. Automated calls reduced or eliminated the need for operators, and today there’s no intermediary needed to connect with someone. (The last remaining switchboard in California closed in 1991.) While no one is at their most comfortable at the moment, at least someone’s voice is available on the other end of the line whenever you need to hear it.

[h/t Fast Company]

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

The Tallest Cemetery Monument in New Orleans Was Built Out of Spite

baldeaglebluff, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
baldeaglebluff, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Spite has motivated many construction projects, from a 40-foot-tall fence in California to an 8-foot-wide home in Massachusetts. But when it comes to pettiness, few structures can beat Moriarty Monument in New Orleans's Metairie Cemetery. Reaching 80 feet high, the memorial to Mary Moriarty was an excuse for her widower to show off his wealth to everyone who rejected him.

New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries, which feature above-ground mausoleums. The soil in the region is too wet and swampy to dig traditional 6-foot graves, so instead, bodies are interred at the same level as the living. The most impressive of these graveyards may be Metairie Cemetery on Metairie Road and Pontchartrain Boulevard. Built in 1872, it lays claim to the most above-ground monuments and mausoleums in the city, the tallest of which is the Moriarty Monument.

The granite tomb was commissioned by Daniel A. Moriarty, an Irish immigrant who moved to New Orleans with little money in the mid-1800s. It was there he met his wife, Mary Farrell, and together they started a successful business and invested their new income into real estate. The couple was able to build a significant fortune this way, but Moriarty struggled to shake off his reputation as a poor foreigner. The city's upper class refused to accept him into their ranks—something Moriarty never got over. After his wife died in 1887, he came up with an idea that would honor her memory and hopefully tick off the pretentious aristocrats at the same time.

By 1905, he had constructed her the grandest memorial he could afford. In addition to the towering steeple, which is a topped with a cross, the site is adorned with four statues at the base. These figures represent faith, hope, charity, and memory, while the monument itself is meant to be a not-so-virtuous middle finger to all those who insulted its builder.

Gerard Schoen, community outreach director for Metairie Cemetery, told WGNO ABC, “The reason Daniel wanted his property to be the tallest was so his wife could look down and snub every 'blue blood' in the cemetery for all eternity." More than a century later, it still holds that distinction.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]