Polio Travel, 1916

April 17, 2020

As we pass another week in widespread quarantine with untold weeks to go, thoughts and discussion rotate around the hows of relaxing social distancing and what things may look like on the other side of this particular time. While there’s no clear answers as of now, you can keep in mind that quarantines are not wholly unprecedented in the United States. On the current scale that we’re experiencing yes, but on smaller local scales they were actually fairly frequent in the past. The key word in that statement is local.

Until just over 100 years ago travel was still very limited to short distances. There were trains and ships for long distance travel, and trolleys and horses for local but individual automobile travel, the type we are very accustomed too, was just really coming into its own. In the 1910s cars became cheap and dependable enough for the masses and this freed Americans to leave their everyday circles of work and home. It also allowed for the first time a perfect vehicle to carry a crippling virus with no known cure at the time far out of the control of local authorities.

In the summer of 1916, New York City experienced a polio outbreak that led to an extensive quarantine. Polio can cause severe respiratory and spinal paralysis and in the opposite of what we are experiencing with COVID-19 was very crippling to young children. Stores, cinemas, and parks were closed. All public events and gatherings were canceled and people poured out of the city heading for surrounding countryside.

As a reaction to the fact that children were reported to be the ones being the most affected, local quarantines were established throughout the Northeast due to the ease and increased amount of car travel. Strict restriction on the travel of children was implemented. If a group was “touring” in their car with a young child or children they were required to have an official certificate of health to pass through (and not stop) individual town borders all through Connecticut. Automobile traffic to New Haven from New York was distressed as a whole due to the town of Westport blocking all incoming vehicles. This meant that the Boston Post Road (Route 1) was blocked and auto drivers could only reach New Haven through backroads.

The polio outbreak of 1916 was a prelude to the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and to some degree what we’re experiencing today. The wider movement of people and ease of travel meant that local communities no longer lived in their own bubble. This rings true today. We’re all in this together and together we’ll work and adapt to the challenges at hand in order to move forward.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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