This picture was taken in California in 1918, during the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people around the world. In an effort to curb the spread of the disease, some states quarantined citizens; others made the wearing of face masks mandatory, at the same time as shutting down “all places of amusement”. According to a law passed in San Francisco in October of that year, on the day that state-wide infections passed 50,000, anyone seen not wearing a gauze face covering was subject to fines that ranged from $5 to $100 and the possibility of 10 days’ imprisonment.
Official advice insisted: “Wear a mask and save your life! A mask is 99% proof against influenza”. This was supported by advertising campaigns and jingles: “Obey the laws and wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws.” The people in this photograph were either a part of that campaign, or—carrying a sign reading: “Wear a mask or go to jail”—particularly keen supporters of it.
The order appeared to work in “flattening the curve” of infection in San Francisco; other American states took up the practice, which was also promoted across the Atlantic in Paris and in Manchester. Supply quickly became an issue, so in America churches and community groups organised mass mask-making sessions. When the order was lifted at noon on the last day of November, a blaring whistle sounded and, the San Francisco Chronicle noted, people threw off their masks leaving “the sidewalks and runnels strewn with the relics of a tortuous month”.
The relaxation of the law proved premature. As the death toll rose again in a third wave of the disease—and despite the protests of the newly formed Anti-Mask League—mandatory mask-wearing was reintroduced for another six weeks at the beginning of the following year
Text: The Guardian.
Photograph: Niday Picture Library.
Inspiration: History Cool Kids.