History in the Making: 1918 Influenza Pandemic Masks in California

By Heather Vaughan Lee

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.

"Use Gauze" is plea of Dr. Crosby"
Oakland Tribune Oct. 21, 1918

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).

“To Avoid Influenza, Wear a Mask.”
California State Board of Health and Wilfred H. Kellogg, M.D. Influenza: A Study of Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic, Special Bulletin No. 31 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919), 16.

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).

San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 25 1918 Page 9

In Pasadena, “Street Fashion” style photography showed a rare glimpse of fashionable women wearing masks while out and about:

The Los Angeles Times Jan. 21, 1919

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)

Red Cross workers of Boston, Massachusetts, removing bundles of masks for American soldiers from a table where other women made them, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 45499363)
A photograph of the Armistice Day parade in Redding, Ca in November shows mask-wearing marchers and spectators. Redding, Shasta Co., Calif. (Shasta Historical Society)
The Sacramento Bee, Oct. 29, 1918.

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.

Stockton Daily Evening Record,
Nov. 6 1918, pg 7.

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 »

Continue Reading

Historic Costume in California State Parks: Charmian London

Charmian London, ca 1910 (Via California State Parks)

This weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture and tour of Charmian London’s clothing collection at the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, CA – organized through the Western Region of the Costume Society of America.

Jack and Charmian London circa 1911, possibly at Beauty Ranch. (click for source)

Those in attendance were treated to a lecture by Jo Ann Stabb, who conducted an assessment of this collection of over 100 artifacts in 2002-3 for the California State Parks. Several pieces from the collection were on display at the Sonoma Developmental Center, including some lovely theater coats, evening shoes, a lace blouse and an evening dress. The lecture highlighted Charmian’s independent spirit and outgoing nature, and drew links between her wardrobe and the larger fashion world of each era.

Many of the garments in her collection draw strong correlations with the House of Lucille and with Paul Poiret- though it’s not likely that she purchased items from these makers. Jack London’s mother was an accomplished seamstress, as was Charmian herself.

At various times Charmian’s style was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau (especially during her bohemian days in Berkeley and Oakland), and often by her travels abroad with Jack (including trips to Hawaii and the tropics, where she would don Mother Hubbard style dresses and Kimono’s). Japanese, African and other ethnic influences can certainly be found in extant photos and clothing pieces in the collection. Not surprisingly, she had a love of fur – especially trimming hats and garments (reminiscent of Lucille).

The incredibly informative and well attended lecture was followed by lunch and a visit to the Jack London State Historic Park to see the House of Happy Walls (where Charmian’s closets were on view). Park Rangers were on hand to answer our questions, and a park volunteer played music on Charmian London’s piano – much to the delight of the visitors. (For more of my photos from this event, see the gallery at the end)

Charmian London in Berkeley Bohemian attire circa 1909.

What made this event all the more bittersweet was the news that came out last Friday: that the Jack London State Historic Park is one of many on a proposed list of park closures due to a $22 million California general fund budget cut. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, those closures are expected to begin in September and have already been approved by the California Legislature.

It will be the first time in California’s history, including during the Great Depression, that state parks have closed because of budget cuts and parks that remain open also will have reduced services.”

Proposed parks to be cut (Via CSP)

What isn’t obvious to many, is that some of these parks also house historic collections of costumes and textiles (as well as other artifacts) – and access to these collections would also be diminished.  Along with Jack London SP, and close to my heart, the Fisher Hanlon House (a historic home in Benicia Capitol State Historic Park) has a costume collection and would also be closed.

Benicia is my hometown, and my first experience with a historic costume collection was at the Fisher Hanlon House. According to one parks employee “Parks that do end up being closed will be in a caretaker status, and the collections will still be preserved.”  While officials weren’t able to confirm which parks had historic costume and textile collections, they indicated that the Governor’s Mansion and Leland Stanford Mansion both include displays of historic dress. Upon further research, it seems that the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park also has historic costume, and is scheduled to close in September (For a complete list of California collections housing historic costumes and textiles, see Clothing And Textile Collections in the United States: A Csa Guide).

Now if you want to do something to help preserve these collections that are important to California’s History, I’d advise a donation:

Click here to donate to the California State Parks Foundation

Gallery of Photos:

Continue Reading