Pandemic redux: 1918 vs. now, and the advent of “mask slackers”

May 29, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Reader Charles Sawicki contacted me with two links to articles about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic that killed 5 million people worldwide (the first victim was actually in Kansas), and the similarities between those times and ours. In particular, the two articles below and the photos sent by Charles, deal with the mandatory wearing of face masks in the early pandemic, decreed by several cities and states. Then, like now, there were strong opponents of mask wearing. (One person was even shot for not wearing one.) Here’s Charles’s note:

There are interesting similarities between the Spanish flu and our present situation. For example, San Francisco required masks and had an anti-masking league form to resist mask wearing. People were arrested for not wearing masks and as we have seen today, violence sometimes resulted. The same sort of hand washing was recommended as well as some crazy preventative measures. It seems, in some ways, as a society, that we have not changed much in 100 years.

Here are two article about mask-wearing and resistance to it in 1918 and 1919; the first is a long article in Perspectives in Medical Humanities, and the second an article from History. If you want a quick take, read the shorter one, but the first has lots of good photos and illustrations. Click on either screenshot to read.

The second piece:

San Francisco, which initially closed schools, churches, bars, and most businesses as well as imposing mandatory mask wearing for anyone outside their home, is the subject of both of these pieces, because an “Anti-Mask” League formed there in staunch opposition to mask-wearing? Why? Businessmen said that even for open businesses the masks would hurt their sales because people supposedly didn’t want to venture out wearing masks; many people argued that they were ineffective (people wore gauze surgical masks made from cheesecloth) and that they were uncomfortable; and people protested that this was an unconscionable government interference with their freedom. Sounds familiar?

Charles also sent some nice pictures associated with the 1918 pandemic (it killed my paternal grandmother the year my dad was born, so he never knew his mom).

Another reliving of history. At the time they didn’t know what the infectious agent was, as viruses weren’t well known then; the first photos of them were obtained only in 1931, so they were defined as infectious agents that could pass through filters that would stop bacteria.

Social pressure from the Red Cross:

Someone who wouldn’t wear a mask was shot by a health inspector:

More “mask slackers”!  (That’s a great term; why isn’t it used today?) The fines for not wearing one were substantial, and could include jail time:



And more opposition:


From Dolan’s article: “enforcing the “influenza mask ordinance” among non-compliant San Francisco women. Image from San Francisco Library Historical Collection.”

And the end of masks: November 29, 1918. I don’t think that people today would celebrate the end of masks as much as the end of lockdowns and quarantine:

30 thoughts on “Pandemic redux: 1918 vs. now, and the advent of “mask slackers”

  1. Good stuff! I imagined that “slackers” was a more recently coined word.

    The comparisons between then and now are fascinating. I am reminded of a recent article that compared 1918 cities’ economic recovery on the basis of how strenuous a lockdown they had. They found that, by a large margin, the cities that locked down had the least overall economic impact.

  2. Nice work – thanks for putting this together- fascinating in s solemn way,…

    I think I understand the origin of the trade name “Lifebuoy” now…?

  3. Too bad Trump wasn’t around for that one. He might have been shot.

    As I mentioned before, my grandfather, Ray Schenck got the flu in 1918. He was in Kansas City at the time. Fortunately for me he lived through it although he almost died. It attacked the lungs similar to this virus and many people just died of respiratory failure. He said they punched holes in his back, into the lungs with large needles to drain the fluid.

      1. I always just called it the 1918 flu. He was actually in Kansas City Missouri, other side of the river or as some folks call it, the big Kansas City.

        1. Sorry if my stupid remark was open to misinterpretation – it was meant to be a comment about the Toddler in Chief. Is there a tongue-in-cheek emoji?

  4. The “Spanish” flu of 1918 is reported to have killed between 40 and 100 million people, possibly more. We don’t actually know whether the first case occurred in Kansas. There are several origin theories that include China (where a widespread “pneumonic” flu was reported in 1916. I highly recommend the podcast, “Going Viral,” which was published in 2018 as part of an effort by the Welcomme Trust to disseminate information on that pandemic on its centennial.

    1. Seeing how hard it is to get accurate figures on deaths due to COVID-19, I now wonder how accurate the 1918 death tolls are.

    1. Not exactly “crap”, but the science is inconclusive on wearing masks. On the other hand, there is likely to be some benefit (albeit not to the wearer) so it makes sense to wear them as a precautionary measure in confined spaces.

    2. From the same NEJM article-
      “The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.”

  5. Mask slackers ‘disturbing the peace’? More like ‘attempted murder’, I’d say.

  6. How sad some people just don’t go about their business and ignore others wearing or not wearing masks. I for one sincerely appreciate those making the effort to wear masks, as I know they are not comfortable wearing. If others don’t then I simply avoid being near them.

  7. Interestingly, here in New Zealand, general mask wearing is still officially regarded as optional – not to be decried, but not regarded as having huge benefits either. We’re back to Level 2 of the Covid restrictions, by the way.

    At higher levels, and in high-risk situations, masks are certainly recommended or required.

    This isn’t because our government is ‘soft’ on Covid (NZ transitioned to Level 3 and Level 4 – which is, Everybody Stay at Home – quite quickly and effectively), more that there is doubt whether wearing of masks really helps unless it is done with extreme thoroughness which most people won’t and can’t keep up for long.


    1. By the way, in no way am I condoning ‘mask slackers’ in regions where masks are officially required, and IMO people who break the ‘separation’ or ‘isolation’ rules are assholes. Different countries’ authorities are dealing with it in their own ways, some of which are more effective than others, but anyone who deliberately undermines their government’s efforts rates pretty much on the level of terrorists, morally speaking.

  8. Perhaps it was a tpo but the figure for deaths in the 1928 flu epidemic hss been listed as at least 50 mlllion,not 5 million. Others say it might have been 100 million.
    But it certainly was more than 5 million!

  9. Help! I tried to begin my day, as I usually do, with Why Evolution is True, but got the following message, which I cannot understand:
    Warning! Domain mapping upgrade for this domain not found. Please login and go to the Domains Upgrades of your blog to use this domain.

  10. WordPress insists that I am following multiple Japanese-language sites that I have no interest in. And it refuses to let me unfollow them. WTF?

Leave a Reply