To Swift, the solution was obvious: Everyone should be wearing masks.
“Used now,” wrote Swift, “while the serums are incomplete, it would save thousands of lives, so that its general adoption by order of municipal authorities should not be delayed.”
Today, refusing to wear a mask in public has become some weird of badge of honor. My quick scan of newspapers from 1918 and 1919 suggests masks weren’t as politicized back then.
I wonder if World War I had something to do with that. The papers were full of stories of children collecting peach pits to turn into charcoal for gas masks worn by Doughboys. That’s a different kind of mask, yes, but there was something patriotic about the notion of masks.
Also, it was soldiers who got the first “anti-grippe” masks, courtesy of the District chapter of the Red Cross, which in September of 1918 announced that it had been asked to provide gauze masks for every soldier billeted in nearby training camps and at Walter Reed Hospital. The first 100 masks delivered to Walter Reed were made by Mrs. Montgomery Blair, wife of the prominent Marylander.
Wrote the Evening Star: “This is the first instance in the history of the country that preventive measures in the form of a mask for general use to combat a disease has been known to be used.”
By October, District health officials had extended the mask recommendation to civilians and were preparing placards with which to poster the city.
Among the most stringent mask cities was San Francisco, which at the end of October 1918 made mask-wearing mandatory. Penalties ranged from a fine of $5 to $100 to imprisonment for 10 days.
When the law was announced, the San Francisco Chronicle stripped photos of city leaders across a full page with the headline “How They Look in Their Influenza Masks.” These were judges, doctors, city supervisors — all wearing masks. The message was clear: Hey, we’re doing it. You should, too.
Sacramento followed suit. In January 1919, the mayor of Oakland, John L. Davis, was arrested in the lobby of a Sacramento hotel and charged with failing to wear his mask properly.
“Mayor Davis said he had his mask hanging to his ear while he smoked a cigar,” the San Jose Mercury News reported. Davis paid a $5 fine.
In December 1918, eight defendants sat in a Tucson courtroom as prosecutors, attorneys and a judge pondered the finer points of the city’s mask law. S. Kogas, proprietor of a fruit stand, had worn his mask over his mouth, but not over his nose. He was fined $10.
A window washer had worn his mask over his chin, leaving his mouth free to blow on glass panes to dry them. Fine: $10.
According to the Tucson Citizen, the judge decided that the job of racking balls in a pool hall required a mask, but that a mechanic “employed underneath automobiles, repairing them” did not need to wear a mask.
A variety of mask rules were rolled out across the country for different occupations: postal clerks, waiters, barbers.
When a reporter for the Daily Advocate of Stamford, Conn., checked in with barbers around town, only half were complying. The scofflaws complained that masks were too hot and forced them to breathe their own exhalations.
Wrote the reporter: “Those barbers who wear glasses are in a worse predicament, for, as the breath leaves the mouth, the part that he does not breath in again slips past the edge and clouds the glasses so that he must take time from his work to clean them.”
In fine American tradition, some businesses hoped to capitalize on the requirements.
“Many women do not like to wear the ‘Flu’ mask because of its conspicuousness,” read an ad for Lansburgh’s department store in the Washington Evening Star.
The store recommended women make more attractive masks out of chiffon veiling, which it sold by the yard. Or women could purchase ready-made chiffon veils, priced from $1.25 to $3.75. They were, promised the store, “a becoming and easy way to prevent yourself from getting the ‘Flu.’ ”
In December of 1918, The Washington Post caught up with Oliver P. Cranston, a doctor from Boston, at the Willard Hotel and asked his opinion about people who pushed back against flu-fighting recommendations, including masks and the closure of churches, schools and other gathering places.
“I cannot help but be impatient or intolerant at some of the views expressed,” Cranston said, adding: “Cranks should not be permitted to hamper the precautionary measures of the public officials.”
That reminds me of something Anthony S. Fauci might say.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.