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12 Surprising Things That Only Exist Due to Pandemics

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.

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PHOTO: Regional Museum of Koper / Public domain
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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.

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PHOTO: Unknown author/WikimediaCommons
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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.

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PHOTO: John William Waterhouse
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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.

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PHOTO: Geoff Goldswain/Shutterstock
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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.

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PHOTO: Pierart dou Tielt
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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 right to vote
PHOTO: kheelcenter (CC BY 2.0)/WikimediaCommons
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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.

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PHOTO: Rodw(CC BY-SA 3.0)/WikimediaCommons
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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.

direct call
PHOTO: US National Archives & Records Administration
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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
PHOTO: Raphael / Public domain
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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 healthcare
PHOTO: Armed Forces Institute of Pathology/National Museum of Health and Medicine, distributed via the Associated Press
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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.

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PHOTO: Resul Muslu/Shutterstock
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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
PHOTO: Jack Delano/Public domain
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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. 

4 Comments
JacksonDK May 16, 2020

Previous nitpicking aside, this is well written and interesting. Makes one wonder what wondrous advances may come from this latest plague to cull humanity. 

The skyscraper originated in Chicago in the 19th century and was already majorly changing the skyline of NYC well before WWI or the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. There are some iconic (Chrysler, Empire State) Art Deco examples from the 1920s in both cities but the buildings were neither originally from New York nor at their most prolific during the 20s. Most of New York's most significant high-rise buildings pre-date the first world war or rose in the 50s, 60s, and 70s with the start of Modernism in architecture. In fact, after around 1931-32 there was a major shift away from skyscrapers for over 20 years due to the impacts of both The Great Depression and WWII. What you may be referring to is what's called the "Skyscraper Mania" that took place during the 20s, especially after the contest to design the Chicago Tribune Building. During that period, people were obsessed with the skyscraper and it was a popular motif in art, advertising, film, and other media across the country leading up to the Depression.

davidspiel3826 May 9, 2020

This is insipid.

cjdolson May 8, 2020

While most of the information is spot on, the comment that Spain was the hardest hit country is quite inaccurate- it got it the American moniker "Spanish Flu" because the Spanish press was one of the first to report the epidemic - the press in America and the rest of Europe kept quiet because of wartime restrictions. In fact, it is even possible that it started in a U.S. army camp in Kansas! Or maybe China (of course).