Everything from New York’s skyline and debauched partying to the printing press and the existence of the middle class has roots in a pandemic.
History quietly displays an uplifting truth: after deadly pandemics, we are radically creative. We come out of isolation and gain strength. Then, like societies on speed, we rapidly create art, social reform, and world-changing technology. Nothing proves this better than the Black Plague and the Spanish Flu. They were catastrophic. The Black Death, or bubonic plague, swept across Asia and decimated Europe. Cities witnessed horrific scenes as half of their citizens died. The fear was unfathomable. Almost 600 years later, as the terrors of World War I came to a close, a new pandemic struck. The Spanish Flu infected a third of the world, killing an estimated 50 million people in just a few years.
As devastating as they were, humanity’s responses proved we can endure hardships and rise resiliently. Ultimately, the Black Death led to the great rebirth—the Renaissance. The Spanish Flu fueled the Roaring ’20s, a decade that accelerated the massive developments of the 20th century. Despite hundreds of years in between, we reacted in similar ways. These post-pandemic trends and their examples may hold hints for our own future.
Top Picks for You
Embracing Life in the Dance of Death
In a grand gesture of “it is what it is,” Europeans during the black plague gave themselves over to drinking, singing, and becoming obsessed with the Danse Macabre, a genre of art that emphasizes the universality of death. Even if we don’t dress up as skeletons and hold pageants, cultures around the world still celebrate days for the dead.
Hemlines up, Inhibitions Down
Most post-war periods get a burst of cautious conservatism, but this was not the case in the years following World War I. After a bitter pandemic chasing a demoralizing war, surviving men and women turned to bathtub gin and gyrating. Across New York, Paris, London, and Berlin, the Bright Young Things chased each other around cities, danced in fountains, drank to excess, and generally created a scene for the press following behind. We still value that liberating carpe diem vibe and can’t quit watching their descendants—reality TV stars.
Bawdy Comedy and the Power of Laughter
Black plague doctors decreed that humor heals and people decided church-sanctioned plays weren’t cutting it. Boccaccio’s Decameron (set in Florence’s quarantine and currently enjoying a rebirth) cemented the role of sex in comedy. People couldn’t get enough of these young adults and all their silly, raunchy misunderstandings. You’re welcome, Shakespeare and all Chevy Chase movies ever.
Dancing to the 'Devil’s Music'
Prohibition and mafia nightclubs set the stage for the explosion of jazz, but the frantic rush after social isolation lit the fuse. The time for fear was over. Men and women were mingling openly in audacious ways. Many tried to outlaw this bold, loud music with a hopping beat, but it lives on. If you’re streaming anything from rap to classic rock to Justin Timberlake, you’re reaping the rewards.
The Birth of a Middle Class
With more work to be done than skilled people to do it, the surviving laborers of the black plague had more bargaining power. Medieval peasants no longer, this middle class built houses, learned to read, and hit the markets. All of this nouveau riche meant the old money had to find new ways to prove their worth: the patronage of the artists that sparked the Renaissance.
Women Win the Right to Vote
First, the Great War depleted the workforce. Then the Spanish Flu targeted young men. In the newly industrialized world, women went to work in greater numbers and previously forbidden fields. With economic status came power. Despite fears that the pandemic’s shutdown would stall the growing momentum for the right to vote, the crucial female face in healthcare (thank you nurses!) sealed the deal. The suffragists’ long fight to vote achieved victory at the end of the Spanish Flu.
The Printing Press and the Original Information Age
Long before a free internet took us to the next level of info access, an exiled German saw an opportunity. Before the Black Death, monks across Europe hand-printed all books. But the plague hit these cloistered men the same as everyone else. With fewer monks to create texts and more people able to buy them, Johannes Gutenberg got serious with his musings. He used Chinese concepts and built the machine that changed the world.
We’d Like to Place a Direct Call
Forget spotty WiFi–imagine a stay-at-home order without a working phone. Telephones were popular in U.S. households when the Spanish Flu hit, and switchboard operators were essential workers. As the irreplaceable women who connected calls became sick, telephone companies finally begged increasingly angry people to just stop calling. After this massive failure, connecting calls without an operator took priority and the resulting tech innovation led to all of the screens we have now.
Humanism Means 'I Matter Too'
Rampant in today’s self-help books, the idea of self-agency was lost in the Dark Ages. But the plague shook peoples’ faith in a fixed, pre-determined fate. They returned to ancient Greek schools of rational thought, believing they could control their destiny and still not be sinners. The generations that created the Renaissance grew up with this new permission to dream and act outside the box.
Everyone Deserves Healthcare
The healthcare scene of the early 1900s was private-pay. Eugenics ruled the day; if you got sick, you deserved it. But the Spanish Flu killed more people than World War I and struck all demographics. Suddenly illness was a social, not individual, problem. Healthcare became a fundamental human right, and the 20s saw the start of universal healthcare for many countries and broader access for the rest. We were all in this together.
The Art in Enduring Faith
Not everyone abandoned religion amidst the horrors of the black plague. The devout survivors paid for paintings, tabernacles, and new churches. The most famous example completes the Venice harbor and anchors the Grand Canal: the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Hundreds of years later, Venetians still parade in gratitude to the Salute on November 21, fulfilling the promise of the city’s deliverance.
Optimism That Scrapes the Sky
On the other side of World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and a brief recession, the economy finally boomed. Survivors were consumers. Feeling invincible, ‘20s builders took the emerging office world to even greater heights with new skyscraping towers, changing the way cities lived worldwide. Like churches hundreds of years before, the Manhattan skyline is a testament that we’re still here, bigger than we ever imagined.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Spain was especially hard hit by the 1918 influenza pandemic.