When my mother Naomi was born in 1920, American babies had only a four in five chance of reaching their first birthday, due to disease, lack of safety regulations, and sanitation. All six Boutwell children lived through infancy.
But, in 1929 the family was afflicted with scarlet fever in an epidemic that swept the country, including their town of Abilene, Texas.
Scarlet fever, or scarlatina is a streptococcal bacterial infection typified by high fever, very sore throat, and an irritating, fiery red full-body rash with similar irritation in the mouth and throat, especially on the tonsils. It is spread by airborne particles, direct physical contact with an infected person, or sharing eating utensils. Today it is considered a rare and mildly threatening disease, treatable with antibiotics. It primarily affects children aged 5-15 years, and in 1929 was one of the leading causes of childhood death in the United States.
Then, as now, the basic infection ran its course within a couple of weeks. Without antibiotics, however, there was danger of secondary infection with a 15-20% death rate. My father, who was living in Dallas, also contracted scarlet fever in 1929. He developed middle ear infections that migrated to the mastoid bone, the sound conducting bone behind the ear. The treatment was to remove the infected bone and puncture the eardrums. He experienced hearing impairment until fairly effective corrective surgery was developed in the 1960s. I grew up thinking men, in general, were hard of hearing.
My mother was the first in her family to get sick.
Her older brother Sydney, whom she considered her best friend was next. “We all got it,” Naomi remembered years later. “But, after everyone got well, Syd was still sick- all spring, summer, into the fall. I felt so guilty because I had given it to him.”
Syd developed rheumatic fever that resulted in cardiac inflammation. An active, athletic kid, this was especially hard for him to abide. On days he felt a little better, he wanted to jump out of bed and run outside, climb a tree.
To encourage more quiet amusement, my grandmother purchased a crystal radio set from Mr. Young at the Hall Music Company in Abilene, who said she could pay for it as she was able.
“Syd assembled the radio and spent hours listening every day,” Naomi said. “It was his very own radio. That radio and the trains were his link to the world.
When it got warm in the spring, we set up a bed for him on the screened porch. The railroad tracks were nearby. He got to know the sound of each train, where it was coming from and going to. He’d imagine all those places and liked to think he’d go there, too. One day.”
Sydney was twelve years old in September, 1929, headed into the seventh grade when he died.
That winter my grandmother sent Mr. Young the remaining $5 owed on Syd’s radio. He had heard of the child’s passing and returned her payment, explaining that the debt was forgiven. Mr. Young’s gift was especially generous since the Great Depression had set in and most everyone was financially strapped and stripped. There was no money for the purchase of such things as sheet music, instruments, radios, Victrolas, or records at the Hall Music Company.
“It was amazing how generous and supportive everyone was. When the first person in a family got sick the public health department would come and hang a big yellow quarantine sign up. No one could go in or come out and you had to stay home until the last family member was clear. The newspaper published who was in quarantine and neighbors left food and supplies on the porch. Everyone pitched in.”
I know these stories from my parents because in many ways they were shaped by the epidemic - by its hardships, but also by its lessons of fortitude and community. While scarletina had a much narrower target population than Covid-19, it was highly contagious, deadly, and tragic. The epidemic lasted just over a year and was contained through very basic, centuries-old public health practices - facial masks, physical distancing, hand washing, household sanitation, strict quarantining, and communication.
For fear of losing their children, Americans complied.
This was how we recovered once. We can do it again. And we should.