During the 1918 flu pandemic, masks were controversial for "many of the same reasons they are today"

Masks controversial during 1918 flu pandemic
Masks controversial during 1918 flu pandemic 05:33

As Election Day nears, the role of masks during the coronavirus pandemic has become highly politicized; while health experts have emphasized how masks can reduce spread, mask rules across the country have varied and so has the response from Americans. 

More than a century ago, during the 1918 flu pandemic, there were some similar feelings about masks.

As Americans were celebrating victory in World War I in the fall of 1918, the masks on returning troops showed that the U.S. was losing another war against the so-called Spanish Flu. 

Masks were controversial back then "for many of the same reasons they are today," said Nancy Tomes, a history professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

The pandemic in 1918 got "really, really bad," she told "CBS This Morning" co-host Anthony Mason. "We refer to it as the Big One among historians of medicine."

About 675,000 Americans would die, nearly a third of them in a single month. The Red Cross spread the slogan "wear a mask, save your life," and nurses began to make them for the public.

Two gauze masks used in the 1918 pandemic are in the collection of the Oakland Museum of California. 

"They're pretty transparent," associate curator Erendina Delgadillo said. "So it wasn't an ideal material, but it was definitely better than not wearing anything." 

One of the centers in the fight against the 1918 pandemic was the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. 

"Its founder Lillian Ward played a critical role in organizing the pandemic response in New York City," Tomes said. 

Masks were never officially mandated on the East Coast, Tomes said, but other health rules were often aggressively enforced, including arresting people for spitting.

"There was a definite effort to up the ante. In prosecuting, they called them sanitary infractions," Tomes said.

The U.S. outbreak had started on a Kansas Army base and the campaign to stop it was tied to the war effort.

Wearing a mask became a patriotic gesture. 

"If you refuse to wear a mask, you could be called a slacker," Tomes said. "A slacker was not quite like a traitor, but it was someone who was dragging their patriotic feet."

San Francisco was the first city to mandate masks.

"Ten percent of the population was infected between 1918 and 1919," Delgadillo said.

In just a day, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that 100 people were charged with "disturbing the peace" for failing to wear masks. Their sentence was 10 days in prison or a $5 fine, about $80 today.

"And then here in San Francisco, there was an Anti-Mask League that formed in early January," Delgadillo said. "The chairman was this woman named Mrs. E.C. Harrington. She was a suffragist. She was a lawyer. … She put out a call in the San Francisco Chronicle asking for her fellow citizens who objected to this mask mandate as really similar to the arguments now actually." 

They argued the ordinance was unconstitutional and that masks had not been proven effective. Some 2,000 people turned out for a rally at the Dreamland skate rink.  

Other cities would mandate masks, including Denver, Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento and Phoenix. They were met with resistance too, but one major difference then was it wasn't political.

"There was disagreement between the various politicians about which businesses should get closed down, but the decision to mask or not to mask never became identified with a specific political party," Tomes said. 

Although the materials used for masks in 1918 were less effective than those used today, according to Tomes, masks did lower the number of deaths when coupled with other measures like social distancing.

In New York today, like in 1918, Henry Street Settlement is still very much a hub for pandemic response, delivering tens of thousands of masks and other resources to the community.