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 »

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Artifacts from American Fashion: The Great War

By Heather Vaughan Lee

In the coming weeks and months, I’m planning to give you a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion (Available November 30), as well as the research behind it. Some of you might recognize some of the research and topics from my #52weeksoffashion tag on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. The book covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.

World War I, originally known as the Great War, was the defining event of the early twentieth century. Primarily a European conflict, it was fought between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, and Japan). United States President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) did his best to keep America out of the war until 1917.

The end of this War to end all Wars” falls on November 11, 1918 (originally known as Armistice Day) and it is why we have Veterans Day as a Federal Holiday on November 11 each year.

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.
“Brodie” style World War I combat helmet, 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, active between 1917-1918. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture).

In Artifacts from American Fashion, several of the entries discuss the impact of WWI on the daily lives of Americans. The World War I Combat Helmet (see above) not only explores the development of the “Brodie” style helmet, American wartime economy and culture, but also highlights what returning soldiers experienced at the end of the war. By the time the war ended in 1918, the United States had solidified its role as a world power. Many citizens wanted to return to the peaceful years of isolation before the war, but that was not to be. The returning soldiers had seen parts of the world that most Americans had never visited. Women who had taken on traditionally male tasks and jobs during the war were not interested in returning to a role that limited them to the kitchen and soon would gain the right to vote.

More significantly, the entry takes a deep dive into the experiences of the 93rd Infantry Division of the United States Army, a segregated African American Division comprised of four infantry regiments active between 1917-1918. Despite Jim Crow segregation, and their initial assignment to menial labor duties, the 369th Division of the 93rd earned the nickname, “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were awarded medals by the French, but their own American government failed to acknowledge their sacrifices. The 93rd Division began the journey home in late January 1919, arriving back to the United States in mid-February. The 369th Infantry had the honor of marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City before being demobilized on February 28 at Camp Upton, New York.

Another entry focuses on women’s experiences of World War I by taking a closer look at an American Red Cross Uniform. Although the early war years in Europe affected the United States and its industries, its own declaration of war began a major shift in women’s daily lives. Filling jobs left vacant by men serving on the front lines, many women began working outside the home for the first time. The idea of patriotism also grew tremendously, and women’s humanitarian efforts increased dramatically in support of the boys ‘over there’ (Benton 1994, 56-57).

American Red Cross Uniform consisting of a dress, apron, and a cap that date to 1917-18.
Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.

Recognizing that patriotism was high, President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) asked his fellow Americans to contribute their time and energy to the Red Cross relief effort. Millions responded by offering their voluntary support.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Red Cross had 8,000 trained nurses ready for duty. Its Nursing Program had produced 20,000 registered nurses by 1918. World War I and its demands helped the fledgling organization grow. After the United States declared war demands flooded the still-small organization.

If a woman wasn’t out working, it was her duty to economize in her household. Excess expenditure was considered unpatriotic. Patriotism was even exhibited in the details of women’s clothing: more obviously through military-inspired styles and more subtly through the lens of economy via wool conservation and home sewing. The growing responsibilities women had during World War I directly influenced their desire for greater rights and freedoms in the post-war era. It emboldened them to fight for their right of representation, and they had gained the right to vote by 1920.

For more on how Americans’ daily lives were affected by World War I, see Artifacts from American Fashion (available November 30, 2019).

Sources:

“The American National Red Cross.” 1917. The Ladies Home Journal. September.

“Combat helmet from World War I used by the 93rd Infantry.” N.d. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Division. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.155.298

Doering, Mary D. 1979. “American Red Cross Uniforms”. Dress. 5 (1): 33-48.

King. Gilbert. 2011. “Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called ‘Black Death.’ Smithsonian Magazine. October 25. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remembering-henry-johnson-the-soldier-called-black-death-117386701/#jDBb4mevkKsQHLE5.99

Patton, James. 2018. “The Brodie Helmet.” Kansas WW1. February 28. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.kansasww1.org/the-brodie-helmet/


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 forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO).  More posts by the Author »

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Holiday gift books (Part 1): “Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life”

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Released just a few weeks ago, Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life by Emmanuelle Polle highlights the extensive private archives of the Patou heirs for the first time. This oversize monograph from Flammarion that Polle spent two years researching, features 250 color and black-and-white illustrations, including the much of the early days of fashion photography (such as those by Baron de Meyer).

The book is divided into three sections: a biography of Jean Patou, his work in Paris, and his work in the United States. Pages are covered from edge to edge with fashion sketches, photographs of garments (sportswear, swimwear, day-wear, etc, gowns), fashion photographs (including both street fashion and studio photographs), focused on the 1920s and 1930s – the height of his powers. It also includes information related to his famous perfumes-Joy and Que Sais-Je.

In New York in 1924, Jean Patou poses in one of the eighty-odd suits he claimed to own.

Though his career lasted a short fifteen years, his use of embroideries, jersey, and interest in day pajamas, and sportswear made him a rival of Chanel. The book also includes discussion and visual representation of the inspiration he gained during World War I-even including some garments he collected and kept as inspirational pieces. The book discusses his clientele, his friends, his lovers and gives an in-depth look at the man and his design work (much of which researched from private letters, diaries, and other previously unpublished material).

This book is a welcome addition to fashion history literature – as it is the first book to focus solely on the short but substantial career of Jean Patou since the 1980s. Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life is one of those rare gems that will be of interest to both established fashion historians, archivists, libraries, museums and  fashion enthusiast alike. Especially those interested in Paris, and the Art Deco period.

For a ‘sneak peak’ of the interior, check out the small gallery below.

 

* © Francis Hammond, “Declaration” evening top in pale pink silk tulle over matching silk chiffon, embroidered all over with white and silver satin tubes in a geometric diamond motif, Winter 1935. This garment, which belonged to the Princesse Nilfur, was worn under a tuxedo suit with a long skirt and jacket in black satin, lined in the same pink color as the top.

 

 

 

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