With the exception of when we celebrate Halloween, rob banks or attend costume parties, most people don’t like wearing masks.

We find them to be inconvenient and uncomfortable. Some say they are ineffective in fighting the coronavirus. Others claim that mandates to wear them are infringements on their freedoms.

But the vast majority of scientists and medical professionals firmly believe that until an effective vaccine is discovered, masks and social distancing remain our main lines of defense against the deadly disease that is sweeping the country and the world.

Who is correct in this ongoing debate over wearing masks? No one can tell for sure in this moment of crisis. But we are fortunate to have an example from history, a sample in time, that we can study and hopefully learn from today.

Although the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 is not the same as the virus we now face, there are significant similarities in their spread and degree of contagiousness. They are both airborne diseases that thrive among people in close quarters and in range of those who cough, sneeze or even engage in casual conversation.

Given these circumstances in the fall of 1918, many parts of New Mexico and the rest of the United States required, or at least highly recommended, the wearing of gauze masks. What was it like to wear masks back then? How did people react to them? And, most important, how effective were masks in helping to end the Spanish flu, the worst epidemic in American history?

Mandates to wear

The Spanish flu struck suddenly in the fall of 1918, spreading across the United States and around the world with a speed unequaled by previous pandemics. Victims often caught the flu and died of it or its complications, especially pneumonia, within hours. Doctors were baffled by a deadly strand of the flu they had never read of in their textbooks or encountered in their careers.

States and cities reacted by closing down public gathering places, including schools, churches, movie theaters and large gatherings of any kind. Within weeks, small communities such as Taos in New Mexico and large cities like San Francisco in California required residents to wear masks while in public.

A police officer arresting a citizen for not wearing a mask, 1918.

Many towns and cities attached stiff punishments to their ordinances, including jail sentences and fines, usually $5 (worth $93 today). Judges often instructed guilty parties to contribute their fines to the Red Cross or other worthy causes.

Most police officers took these ordinances seriously, rounding up individuals or whole groups to appear before local judges. Twenty-five plainclothesmen were added to the police force to help nab offenders in Tucson, Ariz.

No one was exempt in Stockton, Calif., where a policeman arrested his own father for violation of the ordinance requiring the wearing of masks. City officials in San Francisco were embarrassed when they attended a local prize fight and a photographer took a picture of the crowd with them in it.

The controversial photo showed Mayor James Rolph Jr., with his mask over one ear and a completely unmasked Supervisor Joseph Mulvihill. The city health officer wasn’t in the photo, but admitted to being present and that it was possible that he “may have lowered or raised my mask to take a puff at a cigar.”

The mayor, supervisor and health officer confessed to their crimes; each readily sent $25 checks to a workers’ charity fund.

In Oakland, Calif., the city ordinance requiring the wearing of masks was enforced so strictly that 488 men and women were arrested and sent to the local jail on a single day. Most were not bailed out by family members or friends until the following morning.

A reporter described the “shrouded faces” of prisoners looking “gloomily” from behind prison bars with face masks. The jailers had taught them the useful art of wearing masks before their release, making room for the next troop of offenders in need of training while incarcerated.

Some cities had so many cases on its court docket that whole days, known as Mask Days, were designated to deal with the many offenders. Most of the accused accepted their fines or short sentences. Others did not.

When Charles Hollenshurt was arrested for not wearing a mask in Oakland, a judge sentenced him to an unusually long 30 days in jail.

Buffalo Times, Oct. 15. 1918.

“Fine,” said Hollenshurt, “the dern thing’ll be over by then.” “We’ll make certain about it, then,” said the judge. “Sixty days.”

We have some idea of conditions in at least one jail from the experience of a 16 year old who was arrested for failing to put on a mask as he left a barber shop. The boy later reported that he was “thrown” into a jail cell with 22 criminals facing an assortment of charges. Most were released if they could pay a $5 bond, but the teenager had only a dollar or two left after paying for his haircut.

The boy described his cell as “reeking with filth” with a floor “so sticky … one could hardly walk on it.” There was no heat and the boy had no coat. When the fellow was finally released on the following day, his father pointed out how unjust it was that in enforcing a sanitary ordinance his son was forced to exist in the most unsanitary conditions.

Willingness to wear

Despite some exceptions, most Americans were willing to endure the inconvenience of wearing masks. The United States had just won the First World War, largely as a result of its citizens making needed sacrifices, from conserving food to sending loved ones into battle.

Asking people to wear masks to fight a new, more deadly enemy seemed like an extension of the war. Americans were ready and willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

Americans either made their masks, with instructions in their newspapers, or acquired them for free, especially from the Red Cross. Millions of private individuals and Red Cross volunteers had made surgical masks and bandages from gauze material during the war. Just as the war was ending, these same volunteers applied their skills in a new, equally exhausting campaign.

In Medford, Ore., for example, five dedicated women made 1,900 masks for the Red Cross by the end of 1918. When the people of Atlanta received a rush order for 18,000 masks, local women accomplished the task on a single night.

But there were never enough masks. In Anaconda, Mont., the Red Cross appealed for more volunteers to make masks because the demand for masks simply could not be met even with women working 24 hours a day in three, eight-hour shifts. The Red Cross in Dutchess County, New York, made an urgent request for volunteers when it received an emergency call for 10,000 masks to supply soldiers a month before the world war ended.

Many stores advertised and sold masks, individually for 19 to 25 cents each, or as gauze material, available for 10 to 19 cents a yard, if people chose to make their own protective shields.

Classified ads even listed jobs for agents to sell “E-Z flu masks” with “liberal” commissions. A pharmacy in Indiana reported the arrival of a big shipment of masks which were completely sold out within hours.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 20, 1918.

Americans were motivated to wear masks as the number of flu cases rose in towns across the nation. In Eau Claire, Wisc., clerks were seen wearing masks on the street, as were newsboys whose shouts were muffled by the masks they wore while they tried to yell the day’s top headlines.

Telephone operators in government offices wore masks, although operators with soft voices had to learn to speak louder to be heard. Messenger boys in Missoula, Mont., made sure they wore masks when they delivered telegrams to homes afflicted with the disease. With their close proximity to customers, many barbers wore masks to protect themselves.

Shoppers often received free masks when they entered stores, especially during the Christmas season, although at least one store in Indiana required that all masks be returned at the door. Hopefully, the masks were discarded or washed, rather than just recycled and given to other customers on arrival.

Police officers in New York City’s 10,000-man force were ordered to wear their masks not only when they were on duty, but also when they slept in dormitories at their police stations.

Even “Socialist Park” in front of Tucson’s City Hall was almost deserted as most of its regular political preachers stayed home. A reporter noticed that those who did show up sounded like buzzing bees in a jug as they tried to speak with their masks snugly in place.

Wearing a mask protected men, women and children from the flu and, sometimes, from other dangers as well. A 7-year-old boy in Oakland was dutifully wearing his flu mask when he was suddenly attacked by his neighbor’s English bulldog. The boy survived the attack, thanks to his mask that reportedly saved him from more serious facial injuries.

Americans were reminded to wear masks in public service announcements that appeared in the press and with warning signs, like one that read, “Wear a Mask or Go to Jail.”

But most Americans wore masks quite readily. Those who did not were sometimes called “slackers,” the same term given to men who refused to cooperate with the draft during the war. In both cases, slackers were people who were not willing to do their part in defending their country when it was under attack.

Romance survived

Despite the flu, Americans tried to continue their love lives, from looking their best to courting, kissing and, eventually, marriage. Women still tried to make themselves alluring, often trading their mundane masks for “fashionable” veils available in several colors for the “special” price of $2.50.

Of course, wearing attractive veils could have unintended consequences, as happened to a woman of such beauty that a reporter wrote that if flu germs had “any sense they could scarcely be expected to ignore her.”

A fashionable but ineffective mask, 1918.

A less flattering Indianapolis reporter believed that wearing flu masks might well improve the appearance of “some among us.” An equally unkind reporter in El Paso, Texas, wrote that unsightly “old maids” didn’t care if the epidemic ever ended.

A writer in Arizona made similarly disparaging remarks about men, saying, “We know some fellows whose faces would be improved by any kind of mask.” At least men could take a vacation from shaving for the duration of the crisis.

An “experienced physician” in Los Angeles ran an ad that suggested that “clever” women might exploit the moment to beautify themselves by undergoing single- or double-face lifts during the health crisis. Flu masks would cover the patients’ surgical bruises while they awaited the day they healed and could reveal their improved new faces to the world.

Couples who went on dates often found movie theaters and other centers of entertainment closed. The Park Theater in Indianapolis was an exception because they wisely offered patrons “official Red Cross” flu masks with the purchase of every ticket to the show.

After a night out, a young woman in Kansas looked forward to having her date walk her to her door, but decided that “if everybody has to wear flu masks, she is going to have a ‘mouth’ cut in hers.” The woman of course intended to cut a mouth in her handsome beau’s mask, too.

Others complained that flu masks made kissing under the mistletoe and at midnight on New Year’s Eve most “unnatural and unsatisfactory.”

If courting and kissing went well, weddings often followed, albeit without some time-honored traditions. John McEntaggart reportedly came all the way from Ireland to marry Felicita Lucero in Clayton, N.M. But, with all churches closed during the pandemic, a fellow Irishman, Fr. Patrick Murphy, had to marry the couple on the lawn of the Catholic parsonage.

A witness noted the wearing of flu masks “rendered the old-fashioned practice of kissing the bride out of the question” as everyone in the matrimonial party, including Fr. Murphy, were “compelled to wear masks.”

(Part 2 of this two-part series will appear on Oct. 29. Readers interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact its president, Richard Melzer, at [email protected].)

Richard Melzer, Ph.D

(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society since 1998.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Rick Madden for kindly lending his medical expertise in the writing of this column.

Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)

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Richard Melzer, guest columnist

Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.

He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.

Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected].