During the 1918 flu pandemic, wearing a mask was illegal in some parts of America. What changed?


However, it has not always been the case that wearing a mask is an Asian trend.

There are many parallels between the two pandemics.

While theories about the origin of the 1918 virus still abound, it has been given a country-specific name: the Spanish flu. Globalization facilitated its spread when soldiers fighting in the First World War caught the flu around the world. At the time, as today, the warehouses were transformed into quarantine hospitals. And an ocean liner with infected patients has become a topic of discussion.

But a notable difference is that it was the United States that led the world in the wearing of masks.

In October 1918, as San Francisco received the second wave of the pandemic, hospitals began to report an increase in the number of infected patients.

On October 24, 1918, the city’s elected legislative body, the San Francisco Supervisory Council, realizing that drastic measures had to be taken with more than 4,000 registered cases, unanimously adopted the ordinance on the flu mask.

The wearing of masks in public has become compulsory for the first time on American soil.

Adoption of masks

After San Francisco made masks mandatory in public, an awareness campaign began.

The city’s mayor, along with members of the Health Council, approved a Red Cross advertising blitz that said to the public, “Wear a mask and save your life!” A mask is 99% flu-proof. Songs were written about wearing the mask, including a song with the words: “Obey the laws and wear gauze.” Protect your jaws from septic paws. “

The warehouses have been converted to house the quarantined infected people.

Anyone outside without a mask could be fined or even imprisoned.

The campaign worked and other California cities followed suit, including Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, followed by the United States.

And it wasn’t just America.

On the other side of the Atlantic, similar measures were taken – the Committee of the Paris Academy of Medicine recommended the wearing of face masks in the French captial in early November 1918. Dr Niven, medical officer of health Manchester, in the north of England.

In a repeating story this week, the mayor of Los Angeles asked people to wear masks while shopping.

As the use of masks accelerated in Europe and North America, the supply problem became acute.

There were only a small number of specialty mask manufacturers, such as the Prophylacto Manufacturing Company of Chicago, and they could not keep up with the surge in demand.

Home production was the answer. In parts of America, churches, community groups, and Red Cross sections have come together, acquiring as much gauze as they can find, and have held mass-mask-making sessions.

An American policeman wearing a

Newspapers and miscellaneous State In the United States, governments linked the masks to the war on the battlefields in Europe in October 1918 – “Gas Masks in the Trenches; Influenza Masks at Home, “promised The Washington Times on September 26, 1918, saying that 45,000 masks would be provided to American soldiers to ward off” Spanish flu. “

At the end of the First World War, on November 11, manufacturers of gas masks filling public markets switched to influenza masks.

Police mask wearing

Laws wearing the mask were largely supported by the public and were for the most part controlled by consent.

Tucson, Arizona, issued a facial mask ordinance on November 14, 1918, with exemptions for preachers, singers and actors in theaters and teachers – all believed to be far enough from their audiences. Shortly after, Police Chief Bailey told Citizen Tucson not that he was threatening to arrest the disbelievers, but rather that, he said, “No gathering will be considered fashionable unless the participants wear masks. “

Seattle police wear face masks during the 1918 flu epidemic, which claimed the lives of millions of people around the world.

Back on the west coast, San Francisco was still ahead of the curve on promoting the use of facial masks. On October 25, 1918, the San Francisco Chronicle published front page photos of the city’s top judges and leading politicians all wearing face masks.

Soon there was no more leakage with a mask. All trains arriving at west coast stations were to be greeted by mask incentive committees, groups of women volunteers with masks for those who had failed to buy one outside the state.

Of course, some have flouted the rules. During a boxing match in California, a photo taken with a flashlight showed that 50% of the men in the audience were not wearing a mask. The police enlarged the image and used it to identify the mask.

Each man was warned to make a “voluntary contribution” to a charity for men fighting abroad, or to face prosecution.

Was the mask wearing work?

During the 1918 flu pandemic, scientific research on the use of masks was still largely anecdotal – and the fascinating story of an ocean liner caught the attention of people.

In early December 1918, the London Times reported that it had been established by doctors in the United States that the flu was “transmitted by contact and therefore preventable”.

The Times noted that in a London hospital, all staff and patients were given face masks and ordered to wear them constantly. The newspaper cited the success of the masks on a ship.

The ocean liner sailing between the United States and England has suffered a terrible rate of infection from New York, the Times reported. Returning to the United States, the captain initiated a crew and passenger facial mask order after learning about their use in San Francisco.

An article from the San Francisco Chronicle of October 25, 1918.

No infection was reported on the return voyage, despite high infection rates at the time in Manhattan and Southampton, from where the ship departed. It was unclear whether the rules on masks on the return trip were responsible for the absence of infections, but that is how the press interpreted it.

There was a precedent behind the guiding of the mask.

During the Great Manchurian plague of 1910-1911, which saw Chinese, Russian, Mongolian and Japanese scientists come together to fight a generalized epidemic of bubonic plague in northern China, face masks were found to be effective.

Science journalist Laura Spinney, author of the 2017 book The Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, notes that after their experiences in Manchuria in 1911, the Japanese quickly decided to wear masks in public in 1918 .

Japanese officials have argued that the masks were a courteous gesture to protect others from germs and had been effective in previous disease outbreaks more localized in Japan.

And wearing the mask appeared to have a flattening effect on infection rates.

By the end of December, cities and states in America felt confident enough to lift the prescription mask, while new infections fell by a figure in most places.

“Today is the last time for the little gauze pest,” a Chicago newspaper announced on December 10, 1918.

A New York Street cleaner wearing a mask to control the spread of the flu epidemic.

A century later

In 1918, America adopted the mask with revenge.

But a century later, it was Asian countries that remembered the lessons that the United States had learned from the benefits of wearing a mask to slow the spread of the infection.

This may be because in the intervening years, Asia was faced with epidemics of cholera, typhoid and other communicable diseases, up to SARS in 2003 and more recently bird flu.

These epidemics have helped maintain a culture of wearing a mask.

America and Europe have not experienced similar outbreaks with such regularly.

It therefore seems that the notion of masks as a prophylactic measure has jumped the consciousness of several generations. The coronavirus may be about to change that.


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