The longer we wear masks, the more they seem to become a part of the fashion production system. I got curious about the masks worn during 1918 Flu Pandemic, and how they might have been similar to what we’re wearing today. I wanted to know who made them, what they were made out of, what they looked like. I looked for evidence in newspapers, fashion industry publications, and in photographs at historical archives and museums.
While today’s masks are made from a variety of materials, and a vast array of colors and patterns, in 1918, white gauze was the fabric of choice.
In 1919, The California State Board of Health provided more specific information about to make an effective mask, what materials it should be made from, and how it should be worn. Multiple layers (six) of fine mesh gauze in addition to more layers (six-eight) of course gauze were to be sewn together with tapes (see illustration).
I looked for photographs of people wearing masks in public, and in newspapers. The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle showed officials wearing masks in an apparent attempt to encourage public compliance. California businesses required retail staff wearing masks to protect themselves and customers. Similar to our current experience, the economy was impacted by stay-at-home orders: Women’s Wear Daily reported that the “San Francisco Trade [was] Stagnated By [the] Plague” (Oct. 29, 1918).
In Pasadena, “Street Fashion” style photography showed a rare glimpse of fashionable women wearing masks while out and about:
Today, manufacturers large and small are making masks and selling them in seemingly every possible retail outlet (from grocery stores to high-end fashion boutiques). In 1918, some cities relied on private industry to provide masks, in others, it was the Red Cross. In Kansas City, Missouri the Millinery department of Alder’s Specialty Shop made masks to be sold at cost ($.05) (Women’s Wear Oct 31, 1918 13). In San Francisco, the American Red Cross volunteers made and distributed 100,000 gauze masks by October 25, 1918. (Boom)
Where I live, in Redding, CA the, 1918 flu pandemic was present despite it being a rural location. On October 29, 1918, Redding made mask-wearing ‘obligatory’ and violators were to be arrested (and put in jail for 10 days or ordered to pay a $100 fine. The same penalty was assigned in San Francisco). According to a Sacramento newspaper that day, “Every Official but One [was] Sick [in] Redding.” The Justice of the Peace was the only man not ill, and the City Manager was reported to be in serious condition.
Two brothers in town were the first to die. The children of several prominent citizens died of the Influenza Pandemic: The daughter of B.F. Loomis, who founded the Museum at Mt. Lassen, and Edward Frisbie’s first great-granddaughter were just a few of the children who succumbed to the disease.
One final tidbit from my brief dive into masks in California.
The strangest photograph I found is a widely published image of man who had re-worked his mask to accommodate his smoking habit (at left).
For more on masks, take a look at this article from the Oakland Museum of California on the 1918 flu mask from its collection. This article from Boom also includes great detail on the spread of the 1918 pandemic within California itself.
While nobody seems to have made 1918 pandemic masks into a fashionable accessory, there were certainly other striking similarities to our current masks in their construction, requirements for wearing them, and even objections to wearing them.
Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her new book, Artifacts from American Fashion (November 2019, ABC-CLIO) is available wherever books are sold. More posts by the Author »