Help Preserve Pandemic History as it’s Made

Md. Historical Society Collects Quarantine Stories 

How will the coronavirus pandemic look to future generations, say 100 years from now? That’s one of the questions prompting the Maryland Historical Society to put out the call for letters and photos now to document this historic period. 

“The idea came from two places. When the 2015 uprising in Baltimore took place, we put out a call for images,” says Allison Tolman, Vice President of Collections. “It was really useful to look at civil rights and activism at the time. When the pandemic hit, we began looking at our collections in order to put things in perspective.” 

Turning an eye to history, the MdHS looked to their collection of family letters written during the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak. “We lost more lives to that pandemic than World War I. It was a huge thing and not many people know about it,” says Tolman. 

In 2020, handwritten letters are a thing of the past. Today’s journals are digital and instantaneous. We use digital platforms and social media to connect, share and report on what’s happening around us.  

In hopes of capturing some of that history in action, the MHS is crowd-sourcing its new initiative, Collecting in Quarantine. The project aims to ensure that future generations will have a “reference point for this pivotal moment in history.” 

Emails and images are being uploaded and shared on the Society’s underbelly blog in two categories.  

Letters from the Homefront is inspired by the poignant letters in their collection documenting the trials of the Spanish flu of 1918, and the Annapolis yellow fever epidemics of 1793 and 1800. Residents are asked to share their personal stories of how the pandemic is impacting their lives. Whether staying at home in self-quarantine or working through the crisis – each story is unique and important. In addition to Marylanders at home, MdHS is requesting stories from Marylanders abroad and healthcare workers.  

Business Unusual chronicles a time when business is anything but usual. Businesses big and small are having to quickly react to the ever-changing landscape that necessarily puts public health before profit. MdHS is asking business employees, owners, customers, passers-by and neighborhood residents to share their experiences so far.  

“Business Unusual is our repository for all the ways businesses have adapted and changed in order to stay alive. It’s a way for us to talk about the industrial spirit of Maryland,” says Tolman. “This part of the site includes stories about the distilleries that are creating hand sanitizers and ways the communities are trying to help struggling businesses.” 

So far, MdHS reports “great responses” for the letters. Many area teachers are using it as a distance learning assignment. “We are getting submissions daily,” says Tolman. Writing a letter may be a good way to deal with stress and anxiety, adds Tolman.  

“I think hearing from kids is really interesting. It may not be something we would ever think to ask for, but it’s important to get a child’s perspective on something historic.” 

Some of MdHS’s submissions to the Collecting in Quarantine initiative will become part of the society’s future collections. One hundred years from now, present-day essays and photographs will grant historical perspective for the next challenge to our nation. 

Read submissions at or send in your own: [email protected] or [email protected]. 

Excerpts from the submissions: 

March 25, 2020 – On this day, Tek writes: 

To whom it might concern, 

This pandemic is super boring. I can’t even play with other kids. It feels like I am locked in a cage and the only things in the cage are me, a Virtual Intelligence, and a pack of croutons. I think that scientists should find the antidote quick. Here are some facts I made. 

  1. This is really bad and terrible. 
  1. This is now a worldwide pandemic. 
  1.  I wish I was in school. 
  1. Considering that everything about this is flat out bad and some people have died this Covid-19 is the worst thing ever in my child life. 

March 24, 2020 – On this day, Susan from Pikesville writes: 

Well, here I am sitting in front of my bay window looking at lots of birds attending to the feeders right outside. This is a scary time, you don’t know who carries the virus and there’s no way to know since the testing is so limited. Interestingly, my son, aged 30 asked me whether I was more scared during 911. Absolutely!! I felt I had no control over my destiny then, at least now I can choose to self-quarantine and feel that I can protect myself! 

So, I’m back at the quilting, hours of tiny white stitches, “stippling” to cover the off-white background and hold the quilt together. I quilt silently for about an hour each morning. The silence is comforting and I watch the birds come and go while I work.