The Politics of Masking

As many of us return to work and life in our Connecticut communities, we are continuing to face a new set of social expectations regarding health and safety as Covid-19 cases subside locally. Recommended measures still include social distancing and self quarantine if exposed, and we struggle with face masks despite the summer heat. All of these measures are advised in the hope that we can gain some control over a situation that still holds many variables and a disease that has turned our world upside down.

We should all be wearing face masks when in crowded groups and especially in public indoor settings to reduce contagion. This isn’t a political ploy to reduce liberties. It is not a theory—it is established science. Wearing a mask reduces transmission rates of expelled particles and the inhalation of infective matter. Despite these facts, some don’t believe in its effectiveness . Others struggle with the inconvenience, wear them incorrectly, or remove them altogether when they are needed most.

Poster issued by the Connecticut State Council of Defense, 1918.

We have dealt with these issues before as a country. During the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1918, United States public health authorities recommended masks for doctors, nurses and anyone taking care of flu patients. The understanding that dangerous microorganisms could be expelled in our breath and that masks could reduce transmission were developing theories just gaining wider acceptance by scientists prior to the turn of the 20th century. Since not all physicians were convinced by the efficacy of mask use, there were, not surprisingly, pockets of mask deniers and resistance when health officials recommended them to the general public. To counter hesitation and encourage use, newspapers provided instructions on how to make masks at home and published images of people wearing masks—much like those we see today.

Indianapolis Star, November 19, 1918

Public service announcements in print and on early movie screens around the country urged cold sufferers to stay home, cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing and to wear masks to avoid the risk of infection. Some cities like San Francisco and Seattle passed laws requiring masks in public and there were fines issued and imprisonment for the non-compliant. In response to this perceived government overreach, anti-mask leagues formed and held rallies.

A policeman takes in a citizen for not wearing a flu mask properly in San Francisco, 1918.

Just as today, regulations were not consistent across the country, and there was no national policy regarding use. No mask laws were enacted in Connecticut or in any of the East Coast states despite large numbers of densely populated cities with high infection rates. Measures taken locally were accepted with a typical New England can-do attitude toward a new challenge. Instead of anti-mask news reports, the Bridgeport Telegraph would include rather comical morning check lists that asked the reader, “Do you have your ‘flu’ mask on straight?”

Perhaps one of the reasons why our residents didn’t make a big deal about wearing masks was the robust local anti-tuberculosis initiative in the preceding years that encouraged public awareness of disease transmission and unsanitary behavior. These campaigns were often directed toward boys and men who continued such unhealthy habits as public spitting. Posters depicting men politely turning their head to cough into a handkerchief were used to transform staid hygiene rules into emblems of patriotism and social responsibility. In 1918, a simple handkerchief was considered an important public health tool as it was more readily used than masks by men. Men were less inclined to wear face coverings because they thought it was shameful and feminine. Unfortunately, this stigma continues to this day as recent surveys report many males describe mask wearing as “not cool,” and “a sign of weakness.”

Poster on left issued by the National Tuberculosis Association, 1918. Poster on the right issued by the U.S. Public Health Service, 1918.

Girls and women are thought to have adopted the masks more easily since they were caregivers, but their use of face coverings was probably encouraged by milliners advertising fabric barriers as fashion accessories. All the rage in the fall of 1918, particularly with a fringe of chiffon in taupe shades were “flu veils.” Marketed as impervious to germs and treated with disinfectants, many of these looks were playfully mocked in the media. In truth, the thin, lacy fabrics probably offered little to no protection, but they were certainly creative attempts to make the best of a difficult situation.

The “Safety First” Veil designed by Stern & Stern Women’s Wear Daily, October 23, 1918.

Fun, innovative and expressive masks are everywhere today just as they were during the 1918 pandemic and just like then, we contribute to the good health of our whole community by wearing masks during these challenging times. Let’s set good examples of responsibility and stewardship. We may not feel we are doing much by covering up, but with no clear end in sight for Covid-19, it might be good to consider the words of the famed sanitation engineer George Soper who discovered Mary Mallon- the Typhoid Mary of New York City. In his assessment of the 1918 pandemic, he addressed the use of face masks as follows:

“…if doubt arises as to the probable efficacy of measures which seem so lacking in specificity it must be remembered that it is better for the public morale to be doing something than nothing and the general health will not suffer for the additional care which is given to it. To do otherwise would constitute an unacceptable passivity in the face of a deadly disease.”

How true his words ring over a hundred years later—let’s listen to sound advise this time around.

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