Maskers and ‘slackers,’ a century ago

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When the deadly Spanish flu swept across the United States in 1918 and 1919, mask-wearing ordinances were passed in many cities, mostly in the western states, including San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Phoenix. The nation was at war, and wearing masks was framed as a patriotic duty, but then, as now, there were resisters.

The pandemic killed tens of millions of people worldwide, including about 675,00 people in the United States. Eastern cities, including New York City and Washington, limited mask mandates to specific professions, like health workers, police and barbers.

The Red Cross spread the word in no uncertain terms: “The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker,” reads a poster of the period.

The resisters claimed the masks infringed on their civil liberties, spread panic, were hot and stuffy and weren’t effective anyway. Detroit’s health commissioner, J.W. Inches, said gauze masks were too flimsy to do any good. Many people wore masks made of light gauze at the time; fashionable women favored porous “influenza veils” with chiffon borders.

Mini-rebellions, like poking a hole in the mask to smoke, were commonplace. In fall 1918, tensions over the San Francisco mask ordinance escalated when nearly 300 people were arrested by police officers for refusing to wear a mask or wearing it improperly. Fines started at $5 (about $100 today) and went up to $50. A maskless citizen exchanged gunfire with a health inspector, injuring two bystanders.

In mid-November, the San Francisco ordinance was dropped, and theaters, sports events and concert halls opened back up. Influenza cases soared, a stricter ordinance was passed in 1919, and tensions boiled over. Public meetings of an anti-mask league, also known as the “Sanitary Spartacans,” attracted thousands of people, including influential suffragette Emma Harrington and former San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz.

Mayor James Rolph didn’t back down. He said he would repeal the ordinance “when the doctors, the Board of Health and common sense permit.”

The Anti-Mask League dissolved in February 1919, when the ordinance was repealed.

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