Everyone Wore Masks During The 1918 Flu Pandemic. They Were Useless.Historians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, influenza
People called them “flu fences” and “chin sails.” Gala attendees fastened theirs with gaudy earrings. Smokers cut flaps in them, and movie houses gave them away with tickets.
During the influenza pandemic of 1918, officials often advised Americans to wear face masks in public. Doctors believed that masks could help prevent “spray infections,” according to historian John M. Barry in his book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” Enforced by local health officials, the facial coverings grew routine. Often, Red Cross chapters fashioned and distributed the masks that were “seen everywhere and would become a symbol of the epidemic,” Barry wrote. Americans used the masks as a method of retaining some normalcy during a pandemic that killed at least 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide. It was the only aspect of the catastrophe discussed with any humor.
If directed to wear a mask, homemade worked. “Take a piece of gauze the size of a sheet of typewriter paper,” said instructions in the Atlanta Constitution. “Fold it twice, so that it will fit an envelope. Then attach strings to the four corners and tie these strings at the back of the neck. The mask covers the nose and mouth, so that the wearer breathes through four thicknesses of gauze. A clean handkerchief is just as good as the gauze.”
Now, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is debating whether it should recommend that people wear masks when they go outside. In 1918, with a different virus, it didn’t help.
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