Why was there a backlash against face masks during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918?

At the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–9, many Americans refused to wear face masks designed to reduce the spread of the illness. But why? Professor E Thomas Ewing explains…

(Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The Spanish Flu was a lethal virus in 1918–9 that is estimated to have infected a third of the world’s population and left upwards of 50 million dead. Like today, as governments around the world try to contain the spread of COVID-19, American citizens were asked to wear face masks in order to reduce the spread of the illness. But, as Professor E Thomas Ewing explains, many Americans refused to cover their faces. Here he explains the reasons why, and asks what lessons can be learned…

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In early December 1918, two women were fined for violating the mask ordinance in Ogden, Utah. Rhoda Williams, a department store clerk, pleaded guilty “to the non-wearing of a mask while attending on customers”. Williams had asthma, so wearing a mask was “a miserable experience”, according to her physician. The judge expressed “human consideration” for her plight but fined her $10. Mrs Reynolds, a bakery employee, also pleaded guilty, but objected that these “rules are framed to hit those who have to work for their living the hardest”. Determining that Reynolds had “not willfully, but carelessly” forgotten the mask order, the judge fined her $5.

These two cases from 1918 should resonate with citizens all over the world in the summer of 2020, some of whom are struggling to comply with mask orders, recommendations, and regulations in response to COVID-19. Ogden’s “Influenza Regulations”, implemented on 26 November 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, anticipated similar requirements: “All persons attending upon patients suffering from influenza and barbers, dentists, clerks, elevator operators, and others of similar occupations, and persons coming in close contact with the public, shall wear masks.” The Ogden Standard, like newspapers across the United States, published guidance on making masks early in the pandemic: “Take a piece of gauze, eighteen by twenty-four inches, fold it four times evenly, attach four taps to the corners and you are provided with the best preventive against Spanish influenza yet devised.”

(Credit: Chronicling America/Library of Congress- Image provided by University of Utah, Marriott Library)
(Credit: Chronicling America/Library of Congress- Image provided by University of Utah, Marriott Library)

In 1918, as in 2020, Americans responded to mask regulations with behaviours ranging from eager compliance, to indifferent neglect, to open defiance. The cases of Williams and Reynolds are especially suggestive of a backlash against these regulations: masks were uncomfortable, difficult for those with certain health conditions, and could be easily forgotten. Why were individuals punished for not wearing masks, and what do these motivations reveal about the challenge of enforcing similar rules in 2020?

The arrest of individuals for defying the mask ordinance in San Francisco received the most attention, both in 1918 and subsequently, because they highlighted the confrontation between policy mandates and individual actions. More than 1,000 “mask slackers” were sent to jail during the first two weeks of the ordinance. On 21 November the mask order came to an end, after just four weeks of enforcement. As the number of new cases of Spanish Flu surged in the new year, the mask ordinance was implemented again, effective 17 January 1919. Two weeks later, on 1 February, the mask order was rescinded again, as the influenza situation improved enough to allow normal public behaviours to resume.

In 1918, as in 2020, Americans responded to mask regulations with behaviours ranging from eager compliance, to indifferent neglect, to open defiance

Photographs taken in San Francisco illustrate how public behaviour was modified by mask requirements. In one photograph, a masked policeman has custody of two men, one wearing a mask correctly and the other with a mask around his neck. In a second photograph, a policeman wearing a mask speaks directly to a woman with no mask. The caption, “Get one like this right away,” suggests the officer is warning the woman to put on a mask. A third photograph shows a policeman escorting a masked man past a seated masked man holding out a mask. The escorted man holds a cigarette, so it’s possible he pulled off his mask to smoke.

Our research at Virginia Tech has uncovered similar defiance to mask ordinances elsewhere in the United States. In Sacramento, California, Frank Bobich told police he would rather “be killed or hanged” than cover his face, even though he had a mask in his pocket. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, C McKown was arrested when he defied a request from a police officer to put on a mask while riding a streetcar. In Bakersfield, California, with a population under 20,000, John Lynch was arrested “for deliberately declining to wear a mask in a local picture theater” after he was advised to put on the mask. Lynch “was so vehement that the city or anybody could not make him put on a mask that the policeman took him in tow to the city dispensary of justice”.

Frank Bobich told police he would rather 'be killed or hanged' than cover his face

It is important to ask, however, how representative these defiant actions were among the population as a whole, and even among those arrested for mask violations. In other examples reported in newspapers, defiance of the mask ordinance was justified by claims that masks themselves were unsafe or not healthy. In Tucson, Arizona, mechanic C Sutton admitted to not wearing a mask but claimed “it was not safe to do so, as it would have interfered with his vision and rendered himself liable to injury from the machine.” In Santa Barbara, California, Dr J Clifford responded to his arrest with a pledge to “fight this case” because “I, as a physician, do not believe that the mask as prescribed by the board of health is of any use whatsoever in preventing the spread of an epidemic.” In Pueblo, Colorado, steel worker James McLaughlan defied an officer’s repeated requests to don the mask, “stating that he recently came from Chicago where the wearing of masks was considered injurious to the health”.

Baseball players wearing masks
Baseball players wearing masks during influenza epidemic, c1918. (Photo by Underwood And Underwood/Underwood And Underwood/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

A matter of convenience?

Our research also suggests that many violations of mask ordinances resulted, as in the cases from Ogden cited above, from indifference, ignorance, or convenience. In Stockton, California,, lists of arrests published in the local newspaper suggest that individuals either did not know about the ordinance or had neglected to put on their masks. In Lima, Ohio, most of the 70 people arrested on one Saturday night had a mask, “either in his hand, or his pocket, or had slipped down over his chin.” In San Francisco, most of the 110 arrested on the first day had masks around their necks, which suggests their refusal was more about convenience than principled opposition to the rules.

Although the sources do not provide detailed information about the social status of those arrested, the available evidence suggests that those arrested in public, including on streetcars, outside restaurants, or on the street, probably represented a range of occupations. By contrast, those charged with violating mask requirements for specific occupations were more likely to come from lower-middle social strata that included mechanics, conductors, or clerks. In this context, the arrest of a physician such as Dr Clifford for a health regulation violation suggests an unusually deliberate infraction by a member of middle-to-upper-class American society.

Those arrested in public, including on streetcars, outside restaurants, or on the street, probably represented a range of occupations

The differential impact of ordinances and enforcement were fully expressed in the number of Ogden citizens fined for violating the mask ordinance while doing their jobs. Just one day after the regulations went into effect on 28 November 1918, Mrs W Rayama was fined $5 while working in the family barbershop. S Hill, aged 21, was arrested for “waiting on customers without wearing a mask”, and I Ikemott, a restaurant owner, was “charged with not wearing a mask while he waited on patrons”. The fact that two of those arrested, Rayama and Ikemott, were identified as “Japanese” suggests that these laws reinforced structured forms of racism that concentrated certain ethnicities in specific service occupations where masks were required.

Seattle policemen wearing protective gauze face masks
Seattle policemen wearing protective gauze face masks during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

On 6 December 1918, “a non-mask parade, made up of clerks and waitresses who had been caught in the act of not wearing their masks while waiting on customers” appeared in court. The suggestion that these defendants “regarded their appearance in no very serious fashion” indicates that the ordinance failed to change behaviour. It also suggests that the non-wearing of masks was not regarded as a political act. In addition, the eight names listed in the newspaper (“Miss Goodnuff, Miss Bartlett, Miss Read, Mrs Herring, Miss Brown, Miss Jackson, Mr Morris, and Frank Lowdner”) did not appear to come from the minority ethnic populations, suggesting that being young and white might have contributed to a perception that these laws were not to be taken seriously.

In Ogden, the decision to revoke the mask ordinance occurred relatively quickly, on 9 December, just a few days after the arrests described above. City health officials admitted they “had received many complaints that the mask ordinance was working unequally, and poor people were being fined for negligence while others of bigger pockets were not being caught.” A delegation of railway workers stated that “the wearing of the mask was for them an impossibility, as they were unable to keep them clean or get them sterilized and changed.” After further discussion, the motion “banishing the mask regulation” was passed and went into effect immediately, bringing the two-week experiment in social regulation to an end.

Ogden’s “Influenza Regulations” advised that barbers and similar occupations should wear masks. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Ogden’s “Influenza Regulations” advised that barbers and similar occupations should wear masks. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Lessons for today

The resolution of the mask situation in Ogden suggests important lessons for today. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public confrontations with those enforcing mask rules; shaming of those defying guidelines; and public displays of unmasked resistance have attracted extensive media coverage. In today’s difficult public climate, we can perhaps learn a lesson from Ogden’s decision to end the ordinance by listening to multiple points of view, acknowledging differential enforcement on marginal populations, and modifying policies as conditions change.

Most importantly, however, the mask backlash of 1918 teaches us the importance of situating individual short-term behaviour in the context of social needs. In 2020, Americans can anticipate wearing masks for many months, if not years. Even in the early stages of the mask orders in Ogden, the newspaper described willing participation and demonstrated reluctance; both patterns of widespread social behaviour appeared to cut across social class. Both of these widespread public behaviours in one city with moderate mask policies provide a cautionary warning for dealing with COVID-19 in 2020. The historical record forces us to ask which trajectory will be more sustainable: a commitment to changing individual behaviour to bring lasting improvement in public well-being, or a growing backlash against onerous health regulations that could allow the virus to infect many thousands more victims?

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E Thomas Ewing is a professor in the Department of History at Virginia Tech and the associate dean for graduate studies and research at the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. He teaches courses in Russian, European, and world history. This article was co-written with assistants Jessica Brabble and Ariel Ludwig.