As the flu pandemic worsened in Washington in October 1918, the Evening Star published the names of the pandemic’s local victims and urged readers to fashion masks at home for donation to the Red Cross. (Three thin layers of muslin or four layers of cheesecloth were recommended for these “simple but efficacious preventives.”)

The paper noted something else, too: District Girl Scouts were spearheading a remarkable effort to feed those sickened by the flu. By the end of October, Girl Scouts had fed 1,200 people, from government clerks feverish in rented rooms to hungry children who lined up at playground soup kitchens.

The effort was an outgrowth of work the Girl Scouts had started earlier to support the ongoing war effort, said Ann Robertson, volunteer historian at the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. They not only sold war bonds and maintained victory gardens, they made sandwiches and cakes and sold them from the Corcoran Gallery to war workers.

“It was the success of that that led to their work during the 1918 flu pandemic,” said Robertson, who blogs at

Among the badges Girl Scouts could already receive was one called the “invalid cook” patch. The badge’s requirements included knowing how to prepare a variety of foodstuffs thought to be beneficial for a sick person: gruel, barley water, milk toast, oyster or clam soup, beef tea or chicken jelly, and kumiss, a drink of fresh milk mixed with buttermilk and left to ferment for 36 hours.

In the autumn of 1918, the Girl Scouts established what was called the influenza diet kitchen at Central High School, today’s Cardozo, and set about preparing broth, custards, blancmange, gelatin and soup. By December, the kitchen was being operated out of the YWCA at 1101 M St. NW.

The scouts, the Star reported, were “working energetically to meet the daily increasing demand for nourishment for invalids, which the return of the influenza has created.”

The diet kitchen’s meals were delivered to homes.

“The delivery people were the Grubhub of their day,” Robertson said. Girls Scouts didn’t make deliveries. Those were handled by volunteer drivers.

Explained the Star: “No patient is crossed off the supply list until sufficiently recovered to go back to a normal diet. Every class and station is represented in the daily deliveries.”

At two District playgrounds — Rosedale, at 17th and Gales streets NE, and Rose Park in Georgetown — children received hot soup prepared by the Girl Scouts.

Before the soup deliveries, wrote supervisor of playgrounds Susie Root Rhodes in a letter the following April to the Star, many children “came to the playgrounds too hungry and cold to do more than sit around the fire. Undernourished, they easily succumbed to the epidemic.”

The lunches — 10 gallons of soup a day — “did a great deal of good,” Rhodes wrote. “Besides giving nourishment to the children, families with influenza cases near the playgrounds were also supplied.”

Rhodes recounted the blessing the children recited before digging in: “Father, we thank thee for the night and for the early morning light, for food and clothes and loving care and all that makes the world so fair.”

I think the “fair” in that blessing must have meant “beautiful.” It can hardly have meant “equitable.” Then as now, whether the virus took you must have depended on what sort of access you had to a safe place to live, to nourishing food, to health care. The Girl Scouts did what they could.

“The attraction of Girl Scouts was, it was girls doing productive work that was not necessarily considered appropriate for girls of that era,” Robertson said. “The early leaders tended to be young women who had gone to college — were among the first to graduate — and were looking for some way to pass their time. They felt they were doing something productive and were very proud of it.”

I doubt we’d send Girl Scouts into the teeth of a pandemic today. Like the rest of us, they’re helping to flatten the curve.

“I know that with all the quarantines, troops aren’t able to meet face to face,” Robertson said. Many are having virtual troop meetings.

And if they happened to have squirreled away any Girl Scout cookies, they can enjoy some Thin Mints or Samoas. Sure beats gruel.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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