Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

We're just as dumb as we were 100 years ago: How masks became political during the 1918 Spanish Flu

A “community” of anti-maskers existed in 1918, and it seems that we did not learn anything from the last pandemic. 


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The Coronavirus pandemic has flipped the world on its axis, and has made people crazy. So crazy, that there are those who refuse to wear their face masks in public because they feel it is a violation of their rights.

The world has gone through pandemics before and a lot of us have asked if these same types of problems were faced in the past as well? The answer is yes. 

The Spanish flu in 1918 was a quickly spreading H1N1 virus. In a matter of months after its discovery it was worldwide and killed about 50 million people before it disappeared in 1919. 

Since things were not as well recorded as they are now with the technological advances we have, the photographs that remain display rows of beds in hospitals filled with the sick as doctors, barbers and other essential workers propped up society.

During that time, there were also social distancing measures in place, and streetcar passengers were told to keep their faces away from others to not breathe air from others around them. 

The virus was similar to the coronavirus, as patients who did not live through it were those with existing health conditions, however the age group most affected were those between 20-40.

The best way of containing the virus then was to wear masks. But a small group of people pushed back against those rules, much like we are seeing right now with people believing that the life-threatening virus was being blown out of proportion. 

Public health officials pleaded to wear masks, but a tale as old as time now, many took it as a joke. 

The jokes in particular targeted women. 

One headline from the Jasper Weekly Courier in Jasper, Indiana read “‘Flu’ masks improve the appearance of many men, but when worn by women, they take much of the joy and beauty out of life.” 

Today's jokes around the pandemic are centered on memes, tweets, videos and  have a different take on comedic relief, and finding a light at the end of the tunnel. 

It all sounds so similar. In a post by, more similarities were expounded on, like the ads that promoted wearing a mask, people creating their own masks at home, closed schools, and canceled sporting events because of the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

Just as similar, there were also “mask slackers” in those times. 

In San Francisco, lawyer and civil rights activist E.C. Harrington led a group of anti-maskers in a protest in January 1919. The Anti-Mask league drew a couple thousand protesters to a roller rink that ended in a shooting, and about 100 people were arrested, some issued fines.

All this to say, it is clear that though we have exponentially progressed in technology, the ignorance of people continues 100 years later. Masks are not political, they just save lives.


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