Face Masks: The History

to wear a mask or to not wear a mask

Wearing a mask in America in 2020 certainly has caused many to disagree with the “suggested” guidelines. “It’s just for a short time,” many Americans insist. “Wear the mask for me and I’ll wear the mask for you.” Others claim that it is against their constitutional rights.

It’s a topic that has sparked anger and diversity. However, this is nothing new. History shows that to wear a mask in America comes with push back. Why? To better understand this I looked into face masks and their history from 100 years ago.

“The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans.”


The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 killed 10 times more people than World War I. In fact, more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war.  Troops moving around the world in crowded trains and ships helped spread the virus with 40% of the U.S. Navy and 36% of the Army becoming ill from the flu.

The flu of 1918-1919 came in three rounds over the course of two years. The first round began in the spring of 1918 and it was mild. People who got the flu recovered in a relative amount of time with symptoms such as chills, fever and fatigue; the number of deaths were low and the flu ran its course. People were so focused on the war that they paid little attention to the pandemic.

In September of 1918 the second wave of the pandemic arrived in Boston with war shipments of machinery and supplies through the busy port. Men eager to join the military to fight for the cause prompted the virus to spread like wildfire. “As they came together, they brought the virus with them and to those they contacted. The virus killed almost 200,00 in October of 1918 alone. In November 11 of 1918 the end of the war enabled a comeback.” Armistice Day was celebrated with parades and large parties of people coming together which was a disaster and a resurgence of the pandemic was ignited. Millions were infected with the flu that winter and thousands of people died. “Entire fleets were ill with the disease and men on the front were too sick to fight. The flu was devastating to both sides, killing more men than their own weapons could.”

Do your bit to protect me

Mandatory face masks in public

During this time there were no vaccines or drugs to treat the flu strain. Local governments and medical experts could not agree on the proper steps to take to prevent the spread of the deadly flu, but they did agree that mandatory face masks in public and quarantines could be their only answer. Since gatherings of groups of people were apparently the cause of the spread, the opposite might be the solution.

“When local governments ordered residents to wear face masks when outside their homes, they often had to make their own because face masks were not available for purchase. Some people complained that masks were a hassle and requiring people to wear them was unconstitutional.”

Wear a mask

Mask wearing was largely unpopular and resistance was illustrated across the nation. The public was ordered to wear a mask in public but that order was difficult to enforce.  Officers that did enforce the law made arrests without violence, but in one historical instance a San Francisco health officer shot three people, two of them innocent bystanders. Under the alarming headline “Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer,” a reporter for The Bellingham Herald described how the attempted arrest for refusal to wear a face mask led to the shooting:

On October 27, 1918, a special officer for the board of health named Henry D. Miller shot and severely wounded James Wisser in front of a downtown drug store at Powell and Market street, following Wisser’s refusal to don an influenza mask. According to the police, Miller shot in the air when Wisser first refused his request. Wisser closed in on him and in the succeeding affray, Miller shot him in the leg and right hand. Wisser was taken to the central emergency hospital, where he was placed under arrest for failure to comply with Miller’s order.

The Red Cross in an effort to get the common people to wear the mask declared in a public service announcement the any man, woman or child who will not wear a mask is a “Dangerous slacker”. Therefore, people who were in public without a mask were fined (which went to the Red Cross). Some were sent to jail until they realized that putting people together in a jail cell during a pandemic was not a bright thing to do.

Creative masks

Effective or not, mask wearers had a silent solidarity that they were all doing their part to fight the Spanish flu pandemic. Ten days after the war ended San Francisco repealed its mask order and people yanked their masks off, tore them to shreds, and threw them away.

By mid-January 1919, with the pandemic ignited, city officials once again ordered people to wear their masks in public. A group of between 2,000 and 4,000 people out of San Francisco held a large public gathering in order to protest that the orders were “trampling on their rights”.

The group, called The Anti-Mask League, demanded a repeal of the mask ordinance to the Board of Supervisors. On February 1, 1919 San Francisco lifted its mask order just 4 days after the Anti-Mask League presented its petition – but also around the time the second wave of influenza was beginning to taper off.

Barbers cutting hair

The Spanish flu pandemic came to an end by the summer of 1919, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity.

In 2008 researchers discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: A group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia.

Since 1918, there have been several other influenza pandemics, although none as deadly:

A flu pandemic from 1957 to 1958 killed around 2 million people worldwide, including some 70,000 people in the United States, and a pandemic from 1968 to 1969 killed approximately 1 million people, including some 34,000 Americans.

From 2009 to 2010 more than 12,000 Americans died during the H1N1 (or “swine flu”) pandemic.

The novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is spreading around the world as countries race to find a cure for COVID-19 and citizens shelter in place in an attempt to avoid spreading the disease.

Agree or disagree. It’s human nature. One thing for certain is true. If history is a road map, it’s going to be a long ride.










Stay safe, Annamarie

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