Every profession has its own form of protective gear.  Builders need hard hats, football players wear helmets and chemists wear googles.   Service providers need protective gear too.  We may not need hard hats or helmets, but in order to continue to be safe in our work and daily lives we need to be considerate of others and the fact that we could be spreading the COVID virus and not know it.

The face mask is intended to prevent infections and for catching bacteria shed in liquid droplets and aerosols from the wearer’s mouth and nose.  Face masks may vary in quality and level of protection.  They may be labeled as surgical masks, isolation, dental or medical procedure masks.  A face mask is a loose-fitting, disposable or washable mask which creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer, and if worn properly is meant to help block large-particle droplet and sprays that may contain viruses and bacteria, keeping it from reaching others.   Face masks are not designed to protect the wearer from inhaling airborne bacteria or virus particles but are to protect others in close spaces.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 is considered the deadliest pandemic in modern history, killing around 675,000 people in the United States.   Local governments rolled out several different initiatives to try and stop the spread, including closing schools and places of amusement and requiring people to wear masks in public.

couple walking down the road in the 1920's wearing masks

Of course, getting citizens to comply with such orders was another story.  

There was a plea to be patriotic and wear a mask.  People who would not wear a mask were seen as a “slacker.” Some complained that the masks were uncomfortable, ineffective, or bad for business.  Some businesses worried customers would shop less if they had to wear a mask, and some people claimed the masks ordinances were an infringement upon civil liberties.  Some even poked holes in their masks to smoke.  Common punishments were fines, prison sentences and having your name printed in the paper.

In 1918 many masks were made of gauze.  Red Cross volunteers made and distributed many of these masks, and newspapers carried instructions for those who wanted to make a mask for themselves or donate some to the troops.  Not everyone used the standard design or material.  To entice people to wear them cities were pretty lax in terms of what people could make or wear.

In October of 1918, the Seattle Daily Times carried the headline “Influenza Veils Set New Fashion Trend.”  These “fashionable” masks probably were not helping much.  But there was also a debate within the medical and scientific community about whether the gauze masks were effective.

Today, as the United States and the world responds to the coronavirus pandemic, scientists and historians are studying the 1918 outbreak for clues to the most effective way to stop the spread.  The efforts implemented in 1918 to slow the flu’s spread in American today may offer valuable information on battling the COVID-19 crisis today.