News World A century of no change: The mask slackers of the 1918 pandemic

A century of no change: The mask slackers of the 1918 pandemic

People waiting for masks in San Francisco in 1918. Photo: Hamilton Henry Dobbin, via California State Library
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The masks were called muzzles, germ shields and dirt traps.

They gave people a “piglike snout”.

Some people snipped holes in their masks to smoke cigars. Others fastened them to dogs in mockery.

Bandits used them to rob banks.

More than a century ago, as the 1918 influenza pandemic raged in the United States, masks of gauze and cheesecloth became the facial front lines in the battle against the virus.

But as they have now, the masks also stoked political division.

Then, as now, medical authorities urged the wearing of masks to help slow the spread of disease. And then, as now, some people resisted.

In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theatres and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings.

All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic.

The first infections were identified in March, at an army base in Kansas, where 100 soldiers were infected.

Within a week, the number of flu cases grew fivefold, and soon the disease was taking hold across the country, prompting some cities to impose quarantines and mask orders to contain it.

By the fall of 1918, seven cities – San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, California, Sacramento, Denver, Indianapolis and Pasadena, California – had put in effect mandatory face mask laws, said Dr Howard Markel, a historian of epidemics and the author of Quarantine!

Organised resistance to mask wearing was not common, Dr Markel said, but it was present.

“There were flare-ups, there were scuffles and there were occasional groups, like the Anti-Mask League,” he said, “but that is the exception rather than the rule.”

At the forefront of the safety measures was San Francisco, where a man returning from a trip to Chicago apparently carried the virus home, research archives show.

By the end of October, there were more than 60,000 cases statewide, with 7000 in San Francisco. It soon became known as the “masked city”.

Workers at an information desk wearing masks in San Francisco in 1918. Photo: Hamilton Henry Dobbin, via California State Library

“The Mask Ordinance,” signed by Mayor James Rolph on October 22, made San Francisco the first US city to require face coverings, which had to be four layers thick.

Resisters complained about appearance, comfort and freedom, even after the flu killed an estimated 195,000 Americans in October alone.

Alma Whitaker, writing in The Los Angeles Times on October 22, 1918, reviewed masks’ impact on society and celebrity, saying famous people shunned them because it was “so horrid” to go unrecognised.

“The big restaurants are the funniest sights, with all the waiters and diners masked, the latter just raising their screen to pop in a mouthful of food,” she wrote.

When Whitaker declined to wear one, she was “forcibly taken” to the Red Cross as a “slacker” and ordered to make one and put it on.

A policeman wearing a flu mask talking to a couple, one masked, one not. Photo: Hamilton Henry Dobbin, via California State Library

The San Francisco Chronicle said the simplest type of mask was of folded gauze affixed with elastic or tape.

The police went for gauze masks, which resembled an unflattering “nine ordinary slabs of ravioli arranged in a square”.

There was room for creativity. Some of the coverings were “fearsome looking machines” that lent a “piglike aspect” to the wearer’s face.

The penalty for violators was $5 to $10, or 10 days’ imprisonment.

On November 9, 1000 people were arrested, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. City prisons swelled to standing-room-only; police shifts and court sessions were added to help manage.

“Where is your mask?” Judge Mathew Brady asked offenders at the Hall of Justice, where sessions dragged into night. Some gave fake names, said they just wanted to light a cigar or that they hated following laws.

Jail terms of eight hours to 10 days were given out. Those who could not pay $5 were jailed for 48 hours.

Rail commuters wearing white protective masks, one with the additional message “wear a mask or go to jail” during the 1918 influenza pandemic in California. Photo: Vintage Space/Alamy

On October 28, a blacksmith named James Wisser stood on Powell and Market streets in front of a drug store, urging a crowd to dispose of their masks, which he described as “bunk”.

A health inspector, Henry D. Miller, led him to the drug store to buy a mask.

At the door, Mr Wisser struck Mr Miller with a sack of silver dollars and knocked him to the ground, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. While being “pummeled,” Mr Miller, 62, fired four times with a revolver. Passersby “scurried for cover,” The Associated Press said.

Mr Wisser was injured, as were two bystanders. He was charged with disturbing the peace, resisting an officer and assault. The inspector was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

In Los Angeles, ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’

That was the headline for a report published in The Los Angeles Times when city officials met in November to decide whether to require residents to wear “germ scarers” or “flu-scarers”.

Public feedback was invited. Some supported masks so theatres, churches and schools could operate. Opponents said masks were “mere dirt and dust traps and do more harm than good”.

“I have seen some persons wearing their masks for a while hanging about their necks, and then apply them to their faces, forgetting that they might have picked up germs while dangling about their clothes,” Dr EW Fleming said in a Los Angeles Times report.

An ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr John J Kyle, said: “I saw a woman in a restaurant today with a mask on. She was in ordinary street clothes, and every now and then she raised her hand to her face and fussed with the mask.”

In Illinois, the Right To Choose, and To Reject

Suffragists fighting for the right to vote made a gesture that rejected covering their mouths at a time when their voices were crucial.

At the annual convention of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, in October 1918, they set chairs four feet apart, closed doors to the public and limited attendance to 100 delegates, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported.

Headlines from newspapers in Chicago. Photo: Getty

But the women “showed their scorn” for masks, it said. It is unclear why.

Allison K Lange, an associate history professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, said one reason could have been that they wanted to keep a highly visible profile.

“Suffragists wanted to make sure their leaders were familiar political figures,” Professor Lange said.

‘Four Weeks of Muzzled Misery’

San Francisco’s mask ordinance expired after four weeks at noon on November 21. The city celebrated, and church bells tolled.

A “delinquent” bent on blowing his nose tore his mask off so quickly that it “nearly ruptured his ear,” The Chronicle reported.

He and others stomped on their masks in the street.

As a police officer watched, it dawned on him that “his vigil over the masks was done”.

Waiters, barkeeps and others bared their faces. Drinks were on the house. Ice-cream shops handed out treats. The sidewalks were strewn with gauze, the “relics of a torturous month”, The Chronicle said.

The spread had been halted. But a second wave was on the horizon.

New York Times