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When Mask-Wearing Rules in the 1918 Pandemic Faced Resistance

May 6, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

Most people complied, but some pushed back (or poked holes in their masks to smoke).

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In October 1918, the Seattle Daily Times carried the headline “Influenza Veils Set New Fashion: Seattle Women Wearing Fine Mesh With Chiffon Border to Ward Off Malady.” These “fashionable” masks and others made from dubious material probably weren’t helping much. Yet there was also debate within the medical and scientific community about whether multiple-ply gauze masks were effective either.

For instance, Detroit health commissioner J.W. Inches said gauze masks were too porous to prevent the spread of the flu among the public. Also, masks are most effective when worn properly, which wasn’t always what happened. In Phoenix, where most people apparently complied with the city’s mask order, some nonetheless poked holes in their masks to smoke—which greatly reduced their effectiveness.

‘Mask Slackers’ Faced Enforcement, Punishment

Still, for the small percentage of people who went without a mask entirely, reports suggest their issue had less to do with the science behind them, and more to do with personal comfort.

“You read routinely about people not wanting to wear them because they’re hot and stuffy,” says Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. “Some people argue against them because they say that they create fear in the public, and that we want to keep people calm; which I think is really an excuse to critique them because someone doesn’t want to wear them.”

Boys wear bags of camphor around their necks around the time of the 1918-19 Spanish flu—an “old-wives’ method of flue-prevention,” according to a December 1946 issue of Life magazine.

View the 9 images of this gallery on the original article

PHOTOS: Innovative Ways People Tried to Protect Themselves From the Flu

Some businesses worried customers would shop less if they had to wear a mask when they went outside, and some people claimed mask ordinances were an infringement upon civil liberties. Yet “more important in terms of critiques,” Bristow says, “is this idea that we’ve heard today as well that they give people a false sense of security.” As she points out, wearing a mask is less effective when people don’t follow other health guidelines too (and especially if some are poking holes in their masks to smoke).

Cities that passed masking …read more