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Anti-mask sentiment goes back 100 years to Spanish flu pandemic

In Tampa, there were arrests and fines. In California, a man was shot. It was a culture war then, too.

A pandemic was raging.

Newspapers printed record-breaking tallies of cases and deaths daily while safety measures butted up against economic concerns and misinformation ran wild.

For a time, masks were widely accepted as the best shot at curbing the virus, while a small but not insignificant number pushed back, arguing they were free to keep their faces bare.

It sounds like 2020, but it was the Spanish flu of 1918.

More than 100 years before a state representative sued Pinellas County over its mask ordinance, and anti-mask protesters rallied around a Florida restaurant offering free grilled cheese to patrons who arrived bare-faced — echoing similar demonstrations across the U.S. and around the world recently — there was San Francisco’s Anti-Mask League led by lawyer, suffragette and civil rights activist E.C. Harrington.

The League drew several thousand people to one anti-mask meeting at a roller rink, according to January 1919 records of the city’s board of supervisors.

Then, there was the shooting.

A blacksmith on a street corner encouraged the crowd to take off their masks, proclaiming, “They are the bunk.”

A 62-year-old health inspector dragged the man to a drug store and insisted he buy a mask to wear, but when the blacksmith began pummeling him with a sack of silver dollars, the inspector drew his revolver and fired. The maskless man and two others were hit. All survived.

The “mask slacker” and the inspector, according to the Oct. 29, 1918 San Francisco Chronicle, were arrested.

Nearly 100 others were arrested in the city that same night for not wearing masks. Most got fines. A handful got 10 or 30 days in jail.

Fines and arrest were uncommon across the U.S., though, because mask laws then were few and far between. People were encouraged to wear them nationwide, but government ordinances were mostly in cities out West, in California, Washington and Colorado .

Tampa’s mayor then, D.B. McKay, considered a mask order, telling the Tampa Tribune on Oct. 20, 1918, that he would ask the city attorney about it, “and, if it can be done, orders will be issued that all persons shall wear masks when on the streets, in stores or public places.” It didn’t happen, and the subject never came up again in the local papers, though the city did make barbers wear them.

Masks could be politicized in 1918 too. This political cartoon from the Tampa Tribune features an image of President Woodrow Wilson in an influenza mask. [ Times archives ]

The city was stricter in its crackdown on “promiscuous” public spitting, with an ordinance allowing a fine up to $100. That’s more than $1,700 in today’s dollars. The first guy busted for spitting was fined $1 (about $17 today), because the order hadn’t been properly publicized yet. Days later, a youth was fined $25 (around $438 today) when he was caught by “Bubber” Harrison, a Tampa man deputized specifically to catch spitters.

A few days after that, Bubber reportedly told a guy not to spit on the sidewalk. The guy smiled at him and did it again. Bubber took him to jail. Another man was arrested for spitting after wandering into Tibbets Bros. store and engaging in “considerable loud talk and profanity.”

Conditions were much “safer” in the cigar factories, the Tampa Times wrote, because everyone was encouraged to use spitoons during the pandemic and had stopped spitting on the floor.

The first mention of a mask in a Tampa Bay newspaper seems to be Oct. 4, 1918, in the Tampa Times, in a story that said only “sick room attendants” should wear them, but everyone else should just avoid crowds. In a foreshadowing of 2020, that attitude toward masks changed quickly.

By Oct. 16, cases were raging in the city, and hospitals and funeral homes were turning people away. The Tribune suggested “well to do” families should try caring for themselves, so that the private nurses they were hiring could help fill the shortage at hospitals. That same day, the Tampa Times reported that a teller at Tampa’s Citizens Bank “inaugurated the wearing of a gauze mask over his nostrils and mouth, a practice much in vogue in government and business offices in the north.” It started a trend at downtown Tampa businesses, an effort that was applauded by local physicians.

Soon both the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times were running daily bulletins from the Red Cross offering to train businesses to make their own masks for employees and frequently soliciting volunteers to help make hundreds of masks to supply nurses and soldiers during World War I. For weeks, the newspapers published daily how-to guides to making gauze masks. The Times reminded people to mark one side with ink, so they’d know the outside from the inside.

It wasn’t all positive press for the masks, though. A Tampa Times editorial ridiculed a “prominent and portly” minister who was spotted around town visiting sick parishioners in a gas mask and with a towel wrapped around “his generous middle distance.” The writer noted that worrying was believed to make people more vulnerable to influenza, so at least the minister’s appearance was good for a laugh.

There were multiple suggestions that masks were for women, not men. In its daily “Our Country First” column, which was a list of one-liners, the Tribune said, “masks are not as becoming to masculine faces as to pretty girls!”

A photo from the Nov. 7, 1918 Tampa Tribune showed off a new fashion accessory, a flu veil [ Times archives ]

On the Tribune’s society page, a correspondent in Atlanta pitched the mask to women as a stylish accessory.

“There are certain styles in flu masks which are powerful becoming,” she wrote, before explaining how to fold a chiffon veil, looping it gracefully across the face in “harem style,” while letting just a bit of fluffy hair show between the chiffon and brim of a velour hat. “When I saw reckless women going about with cheesecloth tied about their noses ... I wanted to back them up against a wall and show them.”

That was few days after the Tribune reported on a rumor being spread locally by a doctor in Arcadia that the virus was found in aspirin and a couple days before the paper reiterated that the new virus was not simply “the old grip,” or regular flu, as many believed, and was quite a bit more dangerous.

On Oct. 20, 1918, an annoyed local doctor was quoted as saying that masks are helpful, but only if people wear them properly. In 2020, there’s a name for those who wear masks below their noses — a Chicago Sun-Times columnist recently called it going “nose commando.”

Sports fans who read the Tribune were invited to name the famous baseball player behind the mask in a photo. The league had played a game with players in masks.

The Tampa Tribune in 1918 called on baseball fans to name the player behind the mask. [ Times archives ]

By winter 1918, as people were learning more about the science of the microscopic virus, some had begun to question the effectiveness of masks. The Florida Times-Union ran an editorial saying it seemed there was “no more chance of shutting out influenza with mask than there would be of keeping a man in a cell with bars two miles apart.” Doctors pointed out that droplets are bigger than virus, and the masks would likely catch droplets. Microscopes at the time weren’t actually powerful enough to see the virus.

Doctors at the American Public Health Association conference in Chicago in December 1918 split into mask and anti-mask camps. The public health commissioner of Detroit called them “pure fake.” Other doctors said they were the country’s best hope.

Back in the present, the Centers for Disease Control in July said that, based on a growing body of research, masks are “one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread” of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

• • •

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