Opinion: Unmasking the History behind the Mask – By Yvonne Sam

  By Yvonne Sam

   istorical parallels and current public complaints about masking

Taking citizens to task for not wearing a mask is nothing new.  In 1918 and 1919 as the influenza pandemic ravaged the United States, masks played a significant role in both political and cultural wars.

At that time as is happening now authorities urged the citizens to wear masks as a means of slowing down the spread of the disease.  In the fight against the virus, masks of gauze and cheesecloth became the facial front lines. Now as was then, the government talked, the people balked.       

In the early morning of March 4,1918 Private Albert Gitchell of the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, complaining of the cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, over 100 of his fellow soldiers had reported similar symptoms, marking what are believed to be the first cases in the historic influenza pandemic later known as Spanish flu. Within a week the number of cases of those infected with the flu increased fivefold, and within a short time the disease was gripping the country, forcing some cities to enforce quarantines and mask orders in order to contain it. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm

Organized resistance to mask wearing was not common. Not only were there flare-ups and skirmishes, but also occasional groups like the Anti -Mask League, but that was the exception rather than the rule.”https://elemental.medium.com/why-gauze-masks-failed-in-1918-and-what-we-can-do-better-e735406f0e36

By the fall of 1918, seven cities — San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento, Denver, Indianapolis and Pasadena, Calif. — had put in effect mandatory face mask laws. The masks were called muzzles, germ shields and dirt traps. They gave people a “pig-like snout.” Some people snipped holes in their masks to smoke cigars. Others fastened them to dogs in mockery, while bandits used them to rob banks.

By the end of October, there were more than 60,000 cases statewide, with 7,000 of them in San Francisco, which soon became known as the “masked city”. On October 22, Mayor James Rolph signed Bill Number 5068, “The Mask Ordinance, ”making San Francisco the first U. S city to require face coverings .It was the first such intervention to mandate civic responsibility for preventive health in the state. The ordinance stated that any person appearing in public, “shall wear a mask or covering, except when partaking of meals, over the nose and mouth, consisting of four-ply material  known  as  butter  cloth  or  fine-mesh  gauze.”  Failure to comply would result in a fine between $5 and $100 or imprisonment not to exceed 10 days

Resisters complained about appearance, comfort and freedom, even after the flu killed an estimated 195.000 Americans in October alonehttps://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm

On October 22, 1918 ,  Los Angeles Times columnist Alma Whitaker reviewed masks’ impact on society and celebrity, saying famous people shunned them because it was “so horrid” to go unrecognized. “The big restaurants are the funniest sights, with all the waiters and diners masked, the latter just raising their screen to pop in a mouthful of food,” she wrote. When Ms. Whitaker herself declined to wear a mask, she was “forcibly taken” to the Red Cross as a “slacker,” and ordered to make one and put it on.

The Red Cross placed an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle urging the public: “WEAR A MASK and SAVE YOUR LIFE!” In the social pressure message of the day the advertisement further stated: “Doctors wear them. Those who do not wear them will get sick. The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask is now is a dangerous slacker. “On Nov. 9, 1,000 people were arrested, The Chronicle reported. City prisons swelled to standing room only; police shifts and court sessions were added to help manage the situation.https://www.sfgate.com/coronavirus/article/1918-pandemic-masks-bay-area-california-15185425.php. Jail terms of 8-10 days were given out, and those who could not pay $5 were jailed for 48 hours.

At noon on November 21, 1918 San Francisco’s mask ordinance expired after four weeks. The city celebrated, and church bells tolled. People stomped on their masks in the street. As a police officer looked on, it suddenly dawned on him that “his vigil over the masks was done. ”Waiters, bartenders and others bared their faces. Drinks were on the house. Ice cream shops handed out treats. The sidewalks were strewn with gauze, the “relics of a torturous month,” The Chronicle said. The spread had been halted. But a second wave was on the horizon. By December, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was again proposing a mask requirement, meeting with testy opposition.

Around the end of the year, a bomb was defused outside the office of San Francisco’s chief health officer, Dr. William C. Hassler. “Things were violent and aggressive, but it was because people were losing money,” said Brian Dolan, a medical historian at the University of California, San Francisco. “It wasn’t about a constitutional issue; it was a money issue. ”By the end of 1918, the death toll from influenza had reached at least 244,681, mostly in the last four months, according to government statistics https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsushistorical/mortstatsh_1918.pdf

In January 1919, Pasadena’s City Commission passed a mask ordinance. It was grudgingly enforced by the police cracking down on cigar smokers and passengers in cars. Sixty people were arrested on the first day, The Los Angeles Times reported on Jan. 22, in an article titled “Pasadena Snorts Under Masks.” “It is the most unpopular law ever placed on the Pasadena records,” Chief of Police W. McIntyre, told the newspaper. “We are cursed from all sides. ”Some folks mocked the rule by stretching gauze across car vents or dog snouts. Cigar vendors said they lost customers, although enterprising devotees cut a hole in the cloth. (They were still arrested.) Barbers lost hair and shaving business. Merchants complained that traffic dropped as more people stayed home. Petitions were circulated at cigar stands, and arrests increased, even that of the upper class. . Ernest May, the president of Security National Bank of Pasadena, and five “prominent” guests were rounded up at the Maryland Hotel one Sunday, for having masks on but not covering their faces. .

As the pandemic moved into its second year, so did the skepticism. On Dec. 17, 1918, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors reinstituted the mask ordinance after deaths started to climb, a trend that spilled over into the new year with 1,800 flu cases and 101 deaths reported there in the first five days of January.https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm.TheBoard’s decision led to the creation of the Anti-Mask League, a sign that resistance to masks was resurfacing as cities tried to reimpose orders to wear them when infections returned. The league was led by, Emma Harrington, a female lawyer, social activist and political opponent of the mayor. About six other women filled its top ranks. Eight men also joined, some of them representing unions, along with two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who had voted against masks. The masks had turned into a political symbol. The League held its first public organizational meeting on Jan. 25, where they united behind demands for the repeal of the mask ordinance and called for the resignations of the mayor and health officials. Their objections included lack of scientific evidence that masks worked and the idea that forcing a piece of apparel on a citizen’s face was unconstitutional. On Jan. 27, the league protested at a Board of Supervisors meeting, but the mayor held his ground. There were hisses and cries of “freedom and liberty, according to medical historian and University professor Brian Dolan in his article on the epidemic. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5q91q53r

Repeal came a few days later on Feb. 1, when Mayor Rolph cited a downturn in infections. However, a third wave of flu rolled in late that year, with the final death toll reaching an estimated 675,000 nationwide, or 30 for every 1,000 people in San Francisco, making it one of the worst-hit cities in America.

Conclusively, the century old background history of the Anti-Mask League demonstrates the disconnect between individual choice and universal compliance even to this very day. As  with  this  historical  example,  we  see  that  enforcing  complete  compliance  of  a  measure  which  radically  alters  social  behavior  overnight  is  near  impossible. Then,  like  now,  we  see  conflicting  information—from  the  health  profession,  the  politicians,  the  business community, and social agencies—about  the  utility  and  feasibility  of  using  masks  to  protect  oneself  from  disease.  While the public health consensus today stresses the benefits of the mask as helping to reduce the amount of spray from the mouth of a germ carrier (while noting that cotton fabric does not filter the air we breathe in), similar concerns exist today about fitting them properly, keeping them clean, and not fidgeting with them. We also see that then, like now, mask debates tend to create social conflict, which sadly might be cloaking deeper ideological or political divide.

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  • Joseph Ali  On 12/19/2020 at 2:27 pm

    Thank you, Yvonne, for a very informative article. Some of the reasons for the resistance to wearing some form of facial filter to protect the public is reasonable where it refers to the loss of business, jobs and essentials. This is where the government steps in to provide insurance for the population against loss of subsistence and shelter. A contract has to be made to understand the degree and duration of the actions required to stop the spread and return to normalcy.

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