Masking Up Over 100 Years Ago

“Caring for Spanish flu victims” by British Red Cross. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Delaney Murphy, Features Editor

In 1918 and 1919, the Spanish influenza pandemic devastated the United States and the world, infecting one-third of the global population and killing 50 million. Now, over 100 years later, the world is once again fighting a deadly pandemic. Much like the CDC’s advice for handling the COVID-19 pandemic, mask-wearing and quarantining were encouraged in 1918 to slow the spread of the Spanish flu.

According to an issue of the newspaper the Logan Republican from December 21, 1918, mask-wearing was extremely effective in reducing the number of cases in the city of Logan, Utah.

“The Logan Board of Health feels that the masks were put on the public just at the time when a severe epidemic was just getting started and that they have not only saved the public from an extreme condition of the disease and saved many lives, but that they have stamped out the epidemic here,” the newspaper wrote.

The Logan Republican noted that quarantining the sick also contributed to the slowing spread of the Spanish flu in Logan.

“While the mask has been the chief factor in controlling the epidemic, it is only fair to state that a strict quarantine of the homes, wherever the infection has appeared, has maintained practically ever since the disease first appeared here on the 9th day of October, every member of the family having been kept in.”

Doctors in Logan were instructed to report any cases of the Spanish flu, as well as colds or any other flu-like symptoms to the Logan Board of Health. Any household showing symptoms would have quarantined. In 2021, anyone showing symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 is also instructed to quarantine at home.

An article in the Washington Times from October 6, 1918, written by Dr. Gordon Henry Hirshberg, details what a protective face mask would have looked like in 1918.

“Army doctors have found the ‘gauze face mask’ very useful in preventing infection,” Hirshberg wrote. “This is made with three or four layers of gauze in the shape of a rectangle five by seven inches, covering the mouth and nose and secured by a band over the ears and round the back of the head.”

Most people during this time wore the masks that health officials requested, and sometimes required, of them. However, just like the situation today, some people opposed the health guidelines. During the Spanish flu pandemic, angry citizens created an organization known as the Anti-Mask League, led by a woman named Mrs. E.C. Harrington.

“When the Anti-Mask League put thirty-five women on the streets with petitions asking for the immediate repeal of the mask ordinance, and people lined up on the sidewalks waiting for a chance to sign them, the health authorities began to see that the people not only disapproved of their actions but were getting ready to do something about it,” Harrington said.

The newspaper Goodwin’s Weekly described mask-wearing as “sheer nonsense” and “unsanitary,” claiming that wearing a mask was more detrimental to one’s health than not wearing one in an issue from December 7, 1918.

“Nature intended that the air taken into the lungs should be warmed in passing, but with a mask on, it is impossible to take in enough air through the nostrils and one must breathe through the mouth as well. The lungs are not prepared for the resultant shock of cold air,” the paper wrote.

Many who refuse to wear masks today claim their inability to breathe as one of their reasons for doing so, similar to what “mask slackers”, as they were called, claimed in 1918.

I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear, things gotta breathe,” a Florida woman said on June 24, 2020.

Another issue of the Logan Republican, this one from January 21, 1919, claims that mask restrictions were too lenient at the time.

“It is not an uncommon thing to see many people at times without a mask, and it would appear that if the mask is to worn [sic] it should be worn by all,” the newspaper said. “It is hard to have a rule that does not apply to all and make it effective. It is therefore to be hoped that the mask will be made strictly compulsory.”

Science has proven, then and now, the effectiveness of wearing a mask to slow the spread of disease. While masks have certainly changed in the century since the Spanish influenza pandemic, the general concept remains the same. 

Some people back then resisted the mask mandates and recommendations, as some do now, but health officials have proven that mask-wearing is one of the most important things one can do to keep themselves and others safe. The parallels between today and the past beg the question of whether people learn from history, or if, even knowing history, they are destined to repeat the same mistakes.