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Mask days: Will we ever forget them?

103 years ago, St. Olaf College — as well as the rest of the world — was dealing with a pandemic different from COVID-19: the so-called Spanish Influenza, which infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide and killed roughly 50 million.

In an effort to protect the community on the Hill, St. Olaf’s fourth president, Lars W. Boe, enacted the College’s first pandemic protocol in September of 1918, which included a campus-wide quarantine, college-issued masks and the recommendation to gargle with a mild antiseptic twice a day. By the end of October, Boe thought he had successfully protected St. Olaf from the flu. However, following the end of World War I in November 1918, the first cases of the Spanish flu appeared on campus — likely due to the celebratory social gatherings that took place between students as a result of the long-awaited armistice.

Out of the 550 students enrolled at St. Olaf at the time, the majority infected were men involved in the Student Army Training Corps (S. A. T. C.), who had both separate dining and living quarters from other students at the College.

St. Olaf students’ involvement in preventing the spread of infection and helping those who were already sick at the time showed the true direness of the situation. Then Dean of Women, Gertrude M. Hilleboe, documented the many female students who sewed masks and “pneumonia jackets” — which would help keep patients warm — in their spare time, as well as the home-economic students who helped the overwhelmed kitchen staff prepare soup for patients housed in Ytterboe Hall. One photograph documented S .A. T .C. members carrying cots into Old Main, where S. A. T. C. members were relocated to make room for patients elsewhere.

In December, Boe made the executive decision to enforce a full quarantine, ultimately cancelling the Christmas Festival and sending students home early for the holidays. In a letter featured in the Messenger, dated Dec. 10, 1918, Boe wrote:

“The changes and the attendant difficulties have been accepted by both teachers and students in a cheerful spirit. The patriotism of the student body has manifested itself in a willingness to put up with many discomforts and a readiness to make sacrifices. … The student body as a whole have been under rather strict quarantine regulations. For a while we considered ourselves exceedingly fortunate in comparison to many other schools and communities in not having a single case of influenza. But our turn came.”

Those who died from flu complications were S. A. T. C. members Oscar A. Mohagen, Peter C. Reinertson, Waldemar E. Schmidt and Joseph Tandberg, for whom a large, horse-drawn funeral procession was held by the College that same November. In contrast, St. Olaf currently has roughly 130 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with zero deaths among students. But things are not completely different than they were 100 years ago. One photograph from the 1918 pandemic with the caption “Flu Days: will we ever forget them?” speaks to the strange universality of living during a pandemic. In the photo, a group of young women stand bundled up against the Minnesota cold, masks covering their faces.

In order to ensure that St. Olaf’s “mask days” are indeed not forgotten, the school archive librarians have begun collecting photos, articles and other writing for future Oles. The Shaw-Olson Center for College History encourages students to document and share their personal experiences regarding COVID-19, whether it be through diary entries, photographs, or even poetry.

For more information regarding this ongoing project, email

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