What did face masks look like during the 1918 influenza pandemic?


A face mask protects public health during a deadly pandemic, but for people who need a touch of positivity during dark times, it’s also a fashion accessory.

Glitter, political messages, cartoon characters are all present on face masks today. And there is a lot to consider when shopping like nose threads, adjustable elastic ear bands, filtration, layers, design, color, comfort, and fit. But when the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic hit Sonoma County, the masks weren’t as sophisticated.

World War I ended on November 11 of the same year and due to war efforts, supplies were limited.

Face masks were first spotted in Sonoma County in October 1918, when train passengers from San Francisco were seen wearing them at train yards.

The sight of masked travelers was considered “unusual and attracted a lot of attention,” according to articles in the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

Mask warrants crossed the county soon after. People made their own masks out of cloth, gauze, or even cheesecloth.

Instructions for making homemade masks were printed in local newspapers. Four strips of gauze a few centimeters wide were folded in half, then in three to make “six-ply gauze” masks. It was then sewn and pleated, taped and threaded.

The instructions called for a piece of black thread to be added to the center of the masks “to denote the exterior”.

Although plain white gauze masks are common, some women in Petaluma used chiffon and crepe de chine fabric to make “fine flu masks” that they considered “more effective than other materials due to narrow mesh, ”according to a November 1918 gossip column in the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

That month, a “Hide the Slackers” warning was also printed in the newspaper. Police informed residents of the mask requirements and enforced them.

“The officers were very gentlemanly about it, but at the same time they let people without masks know that they were serious and few objections,” the Argus-Courier reported in 1918. The “mask slackers” had to be presented to a police judge and would “no doubt be assessed a comfortable amount for the Red Cross.”

In Sonoma County, 175 people died from the flu during the pandemic of 1918 and 1919, according to the Sonoma County Museum.

See the gallery above for photos from the 1918 influenza pandemic.

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