Policeman with flu mask leading two men away from the Ferry Building

The 1919 Anti-Mask League

The global spread of Covid-19 has placed the mask at the center of American life.

Volunteers have put their sewing skills to work, donating thousands of hand-crafted masks to medical workers and the public. Public service announcements have flooded the airwaves and the internet highlighting the reason and benefit of wearing masks. Retail stores have adopted mask wearing policies for employees and customers alike.

Yet the mask is not a universally accepted accessory in America. Divisions exist on both sides, with one camp pushing for wider, even required, use, while another group all but refuses to wear a mask under any circumstances. While the debate about the wearing of masks might seem new, history tells us that there have long been impassioned feelings about the issue.

In 1918, as Spanish Influenza spread across the globe, public health officials found themselves in much the same position as their contemporary counterparts. Across America, those tasked with protecting public health and safety issued scores of orders limiting the movement and activities of residents. In some places, wearing a mask was encouraged, while it was required in other cities.

Early stories captured the patriotic spirit residents shared in this sacrifice of mask wearing, showcasing volunteers sewing masks for the cause and news accounts of mask-based fashion. Under that veneer, a movement of frustration, resentment, and defiance had taken root.  As the pandemic wore on into 1919, Members of the Anti-Mask League became a formal and vocal opponent of forced mask wearing. The group refused to comply with the order, arguing it was a direct assault on their Constitutional rights. The epicenter of the Anti-Mask movement was in San Francisco, California.

On Nov. 2, 1918, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that 175 people were arrested for violating the mask order. This included some who reportedly “were wearing masks draped over their chins while they enjoyed their morning pipe.”

Anger over the mask order eventually turns violent.

Another 1918 story from the Chronicle carried the headline: “Three shot in struggle with Mask Slacker.” It recounted the trouble health department inspector Henry D. Miller encountered while trying to enforce the law.

“Two men and a woman were shot yesterday at Powell and Market streets when Henry D. Miller, an inspector in the city Health Department, discharged his revolver in a battle with James Wiser, a blacksmith, who refused to don a gauze influenza mask at the order of the health officer,” the Chronicle relayed. “…The police report that Miller found Wiser standing at the corner waving his arms and urging the crowds to dispense with the masks.”

“They are the bunk,” Wiser reportedly told the crowd.

Rendering of a woman wearing a mask during the Pandemic of 1918.
From the Kansas City Times: October 22, 1918

Another health officer, Dr. William C. Hassler, was the target of an intercepted bomb, filled with glass and buckshot.

In late November of 1918, the US declared victory over the virus. When it returned in force in January 1919, the Anti-Mask League became more organized and intentional. They advertised in newspapers and rented public spaces to hold mask-less meetings. The Chronicle reported that the first meeting drew more than 2,000 people. When the mask order was lifted in February of 1920, the Anti-Mask league faded away as well.

Throughout the country, cities that passed mask ordinances faced similar struggles with enforcement, as well as their own localized versions of the Anti-Mask League.

One hundred years later and we find ourselves in much the same position. With the spread of a new pandemic, COVID-19, many states have adopted mask ordinances, social distancing practices, and even shelter in place orders. Even in places that don’t have mask ordinances, some organizations have refused service to those who do not wear masks.

Organizations, like Costco, have found themselves in an odd position as they attempt to enforce their own mask policy with unwilling customers. Refusing to wear a mask has become a political statement with people refusing to shop at stores that require masks and some even protesting in public spaces. On April 30, 2020, a group of armed protesters entered the Michigan House of Representatives to protest the precautions put in place by the Governor.

While some continue to wear masks and take the precautions recommended by the WHO and CDC, many people are choosing for themselves the level of care they will take to curb the spread of COVID-19. With a quick look at the past, we are reminded that community efforts matter in the fight against pandemics. Wearing a mask is a simple way to protect yourself and those around you from the spread of COVID-19.

Featured Image: Policeman with flu mask leading two men away from the Ferry Building, California State Library