It was the first experience that most Americans had ever had with a global pandemic. The first known cases surfaced in March of 1918. By the summer, the pandemic was in full swing. Schools, churches, restaurants, bars, and places of business were forced to closed. And by the early fall, a number of cities had decided that they could open things again if everyone would just wear masks in public. Mandatory masking laws were passed throughout the nation, and newspapers printed instructions on “how to make masks [and] foil germs.”
The masks were made of gauze, as were most surgical masks of the day. And they immediately became controversial. Experts disagreed with each other about whether or not they stopped the flu. People complained that they could not breathe in masks and could not be expected to work while wearing them. Doctors claimed that masks were only helpful “in skilled hands” and that they were “apt to do ordinary people “more harm than good.”
But the social pressure to wear “flu masks” became enormous. People who did not wear masks in public were given the name “mask slackers.” Mask slackers were publically scorned and subjected to fines and imprisonment. In Stockton, California, a man named C.E. Stanford resolutely refused to wear a mask, declaring, “I have never worn an influenza mask, and I never will.” After two days in jail, though, he discovered that his son scraped his pennies together to buy a mask, and he broke down in tears and changed his mind. Throughout the nation, mask slackers found themselves in both social and legal jeopardy.
But Americans have always had issues with people telling them what to do. The mask slackers began organizing and protesting against what they saw as the intrusive mask requirements. In November, protests started across the West Coast, leading, in January of 1919, to the formation of the San Francisco Anit-Mask League, or, as they liked to call themselves, “The Sanitary Spartacans.”
The protests had an effect. San Francisco rescinded the masking face mask order, only to restore it by the end of January. Other cities abandoned their masking ordinances for good, and the entire experiment was considered a failure. By February, compliance was waning throughout the country. Americans got tired of wearing masks. And they got tired of staying home, not going to restaurants, not going to Church, and being afraid of getting sick all of the time.
The problem, of course, is that the influenza virus was not tired of infecting people. The deadliest wave of the virus spiked in November of 1918, just as the anti-mask protests were getting started. But the next deadliest wave hit just as people were relaxing their restrictions in February and March of 1919. All told, 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish Flu, and 50 million people throughout the world.
So, what do we make of all of this? The gauze flu masks were not well suited to stopping the flu virus. They were far more porous than anything being worn today. But the evidence shows that areas with effective masking ordinances — combined with other public health measures such as school and church closings and the closing of some businesses — faired much better than areas with lax or irregularly enforced measures. This may suggest that the face coverings did prevent a certain amount of transmission, or it may simply have been that a constant, tangible reminder of the fact that things were not normal caused people to act in other ways that prevented the spread of the virus. Either way, is likely that compulsory masking ordinances contributed to the sharp drop in fatalities between October and December of 1918.
But the third wave came after the precautions were relaxed across the nation. The strong desire for normalcy — for an “ollie-ollie-oxen-free” moment when people could take off their masks and get back to the business of going to clubs and both passing, and ignoring Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties lay before us, and everybody wanted to roar. Americans protested too much and quit too soon.
As we continue the great re-opening, we would do well to remember that individuality and impatience are part of our national heritage. Often these traits have served us well. But not always. Community health has to be a community effort. And pandemics don’t always, or even usually, abide by the timetables that we set. We have already discovered that COVID-19, like the Spanish Flu, does not go away when we ignore it and that simply being tired of public health measures is not a good reason to abandon them.
For the immediate future, perhaps even for the next few years, Americans need to think seriously about both our history and our future. And we all need to realize that — like the Los Angeles dignitaries in the photograph that began this post we will all look better if we are wearing masks.