Archives Find of the Month: Epidemics in Early Seattle

Home » Archives Find of the Month: Epidemics in Early Seattle

SMA_28786Early Clerk Files hint at the effect communicable diseases had on Seattle in the late 19th century and the actions taken by the city government to limit the spread of infections. In 1895, scarlet fever hit the population to such an extent that the Board of Health ordered all books from Rainier School and South School to be burned in order to prevent further contagion. However, a City Council committee report noted that the burning was done “indiscriminately” and included books “that had not been in the school rooms at all during the time of said epidemic.”

After the burning, the question before Council was, who should pay to replace the textbooks? Since the books were owned by the students, not the school, this was a sticky question. The Board of Education offered to fund half of the cost, and the committee recommended the city fund the other half – “not because we believe that the city is liable for the same, but…we feel duty bound to reimburse the parents of children for the loss they have sustained by such arbitrary authority of the Health Officer.” Attached to the memo was a list of the destroyed books, which included spellers, dictionaries, and books on arithmetic, geography, and music.

Three years after the scarlet fever epidemic, diphtheria hit the city. Looking for ways to halt the spread of the disease among Seattle’s children, the Board of Health asked that a carousel in Belltown be closed indefinitely. The carousel was located at First and Wall, near where four cases of the illness had recently been diagnosed. In a letter to City Council, the Board noted that “large numbers of children congregate here every day, and as long as diphtheria exists in that part of the city, the running of this place of amusement will be a means of spreading the disease.” The ride was indeed shut down, and several months later, after petitioning the city, the carousel’s operator was credited his license fee for the period of time he was ordered to be closed.


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