The 1918 pandemic influenza virus has demonstrated significant pathogenicity in animal models and is the progenitor of 'classical' swine and modern seasonal human H1N1 lineages. Here we characterize the pathogenicity of an early 'classical' swine H1N1 influenza A virus isolated in 1931 compared to the pathogenicity of the 1918 pandemic virus and a seasonal H1N1 virus in mice and ferrets. A/Swine/Iowa/31 (Sw31) and the 1918 influenza viruses were uniformly lethal in mice at low doses and produced severe lung pathology. In ferrets, Sw31 and 1918 influenza viruses caused severe clinical disease and lung pathology with necrotizing bronchiolitis and alveolitis. The modern H1N1 virus caused little disease in either animal model. These findings revealed that in these models the virulence factors of the 1918 influenza virus are likely preserved in the Sw31 virus and suggest that early swine viruses may be a good surrogate model to study 1918 virulence and pathogenesis.