You’re Wearing a Mask

San Francisco big shots in their masks.

This story from the San Francisco Examiner from November of 1918 will sound familiar. By late 1918 the first wave of flu cases had passed and the city decided, with much fanfare, to lift the requirement to wear a mask:

“FLU” MASK WEARERS GET “BAWLING OUT”

Signal Sounds Promptly at the Stroke of 12 and Those Who Do Not Doff Gauze Are Ridiculed

Much Material Accumulates in Drug Stores, but Most of Discards Are Deposited in Gutters

All San Francisco was ready to discard the influenza masks right on the dot of 12 o’clock yesterday, an the crowds that stood in front of street and tower clocks watchfully waited doffed the enforced camouflage without a second’s delay. But those who attuned their ears for the welcome shrieks of factory sirens were just a trifle nervous two or three minutes after the hour, for the din was slow in gaining volume.

Five minutes after the hour 95 percent had doffed their masks and were laughing back at the sunlight and into one another’s faces as if they had just made a great and delightful discovery. A few minutes later few masks were to be seen save those which littered the sidewalks or had been hung up in conspicuous places.

The driver of an ice truck attached his masks to the hood of the machine and spectators, taking the hint, decorated the hood with scores of them.

Fifteen minutes after the hour the newsboys began to take noisy note of those who still wore masks. A masked workingman in a corduroy coat and trousers was followed at Market and Powell streets by a dozen boys who shouted in chorus “take off your mask.” Made stubborn by the baiting, or for some other reason, the man continued to wear his mask while they heckled him.

Not a few remembered Dr. Hassler’s request to deposit the masks at convenient drug stores because of the scarcity of surgical gauze. These will be delivered to the Red Cross, sterilized and used to make surgical dressings.

As will also seem familiar, the decision was premature. By January of 1919 the flu raged back and Mayor James Rolph ordered the masks back on.

A second wave, masks in the gutter and mask Kevins and Karens–what can I add to this? In lieu of a conclusion, I’ll just point out that Iggy Pop may have composed the anthem of our times back in 2001.

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  1. I recommend checking out the article in Smithsonian: “Philadelphia Threw a WWI Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers the Flu” about the 1918 Fourth Liberty Loan parade. The article is online.
    There are also some YouTube videos that address this event from a public health perspective.
    (I’m in Texas, where the ill-advised “reopening” has resulted in overflowing hospitals.)

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