High School Graduation, 1915

Virginia Burton Graham, graduation

When I first found this photo of Virginia Burton Graham, I thought it would be fairly easy to research. I didn’t have much luck identifying the photo based on clothing, but the embossed design on the shorter flap of the photo encasement is Art Nouveau in design, placing the photo sometime between 1890 and 1910.



Embossing from front flap of photo encasing.

Virginia doesn’t have the characteristically tight fitted bodice and sleeves with the high collar, but instead an empire-waist style dress with a low neckline and flowing sleeves- ruling out pre-1909.

dress detail


I didn’t really find anything when I first started researching.  I was disappointed.  I left it for a couple of weeks, and decided to come back to it, attempting to sharpen the image on her diploma to hopefully make out something.  No luck.  And then something happened-I’m not exactly sure what-perhaps just the right search terminology.  I found just enough information on the school, location, and the girl.

One word that’s somewhat easy to make out (and partially hidden behind the photo encasement), is that Virginia graduated from Draper High School.  Through a little bit of digging, I found a Draper High School in the Pulaski/Wytheville, Virginia area.  The high school combined with Dublin High School in 1953, keeping the name of Dublin High School (Dublin High then combined with Pulaski High in the 1970s).  I contacted the Wythe County Historical Society concerning the school and a possible yearbook, but have yet to hear back.

Virginia Graham’s story unfortunately has a sad ending.  I found a list of headstone records from an overgrown cemetery in Wythe, Virginia.  A headstone for Virginia Burton Graham was among these records, along with her mother’s (who died in 1914), and her father’s (who lived until 1940).  Sadly, Virginia died in on her birthday in 1918, at the age of 21, as a result of the Spanish Influenza pandemic.  Her other 6 siblings survived the pandemic.  Based on her headstone, we can date the photograph above to 1915.

Virginia’s headstone is engraved with Psalm 17-15: As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.

No one is exactly sure how or where this strain of flu started, or even why it was so bad.  During the 1920s, researchers estimated that 50 million people or more died worldwide of the Influenza.  It came in three waves between 1918 and 1919, and targeted healthy individuals between the ages of 15 and 35.

A make-shift influenza hospital in Kansas.  Photo courtesy of National Museum of Health and Medicine.

A make-shift influenza hospital in Kansas. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The first wave was composed of high fevers with few deaths.  The second wave proved to be the deadliest, with high fevers, muscle and joint pains, followed by severe cases of pneumonia developing hours after the onset of fever.  Patients’ lungs would fill up with fluid, eventually suffocating them.  In Virginia, the pandemic started later than in other states, with the first cases appearing in Norfolk in September 1918.  By the summer of 1919, there were no new cases of the flu in Virginia.

If you want to learn more about the Flu Pandemic of 1918, and see original documents from that period, the National Archives has a great compilation of items online.


Further Reading:

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Viking, 2004.

Barry, John. M. ‘The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications.’ Journal of Translational Medicine 2:3 (2004). 20 January 2004. Web. 9 September 2013 http://www.translational-medicine.com/content/2/1/3

Chowder, Ken. ‘Influenza 1918.’ PBS. 1998. Film Transcript. 9 September 2013 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/transcript/influenza-transcript/

Dillon, Janie. ‘Kegley Library Cemetery Files.’ Wythe County Historical Society. 31 January 2013. Web. 9 September 2013 http://kegleylibrary.wcc.vccs.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/G-Cemetery-Records-Kegley-Library-Final1.pdf

Jones, Pam and Tami Ramsey.  ‘Oglesby Cemetery.’ RootsWeb. 2001. Web. 9 September 2013 http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vapulask/cemeteries/oglesby/Oglesby.htm

Knox, Richard. ‘All Things Considered: 1918 Killer Flu Reconstructed.’ NPR.  5 October 2005. Web. 9 September 2013 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4946718

National Archives. ‘The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918.’ National Archives. 2013. Web. 9 September 2013 http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/

Taubenburger, Jeffrey K. and David M. Morens. ‘1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics.’ Emerging Infectious Diseases 12:1 (2006), 15-22. Web. 9 September 2013 http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/12/1/pdfs/05-0979.pdf

United States Department of Health and Human Services. ‘The Great Pandemic: United States 1918-1919.’ http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/1918/




Filed under 1910s, Art Nouveau, Photograph

2 responses to “High School Graduation, 1915

  1. Jess A

    So sad, but, like you pointed out with the stats, not uncommon for this time period. I actually wrote several papers on diseases throughout history, and the Spanish Influenza was one I never quite got my hands on writing! The one thing that stands out in my mind was that it killed more people than the First World War. Daunting.

    Have you chanced to do much research around the area of disease in history? My ‘speciality’ focus was tuberculosis around the late 19th/early 20th century. Fascinating, in such a gruesome way.

    • It’s definitely daunting to see the stats of WWI vs the 1918 Influenza. I was definitely surprised. I was trying to think back to college, and I don’t think I’ve ever done any research on diseases throughout history. It’s definitely a fascinating subject, and I would for sure like to pursue certain areas. If I had to choose, I’d probably choose tuberculosis in the 19th/20th century as well! The area I mainly focused on with my senior thesis and master’s thesis were slavery (and the African Diaspora in America) and how it’s portrayed in museums 🙂

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