Much ink has been spilled over the efficacy and importance of masks during the present pandemic. This is not a unique phenomenon in American history.
There has been recent scholarly interest in the “Anti-Mask Leagues” in American communities during the 1918-19 pandemic. You can read about them HERE.
A Schuylkill County native on a visit to the Pacific Northwest in November 1918 got in on the mask bashing in a lengthy letter written to the Pottsville Republican. He condescendingly wrote about the “mask epidemic” taking over the city of Seattle as the influenza pandemic hit the city that month. The author, signing himself as H.G.H., noted that panic gripped the city when a local newspaper reported 100 new cases and 8 new deaths in a single day.
“If they had had a Minersville life sized dose here,” the author jibed, “everyone at large on the streets would have to be encased in a sack, head, feet, and all.”
The condescension and sarcasm misses the mark big-time. In the Schuylkill County town of Minersville, about 500 people died of pandemic influenza or the resulting pneumonia in the “Spanish Flu” pandemic. Those deaths occurred in a community of about 8,000 residents. That puts the death rate in Minersville at a staggering 6% of the town’s population. County officials recorded nearly 300 orphans in Minersville by 1919 as a result of the outbreak. Neighboring Pottsville suffered a death toll of 407 out of a population of about 21,000 – a fatality of rate of 1.9%
In these Schuylkill County communities, measures to stop the spread of pandemic influenza did not go into effect until well after community spread had become common. Measures to stop the spread of influenza – quarantines, business closures, bans on mass gatherings – were put in place too late to “flatten the curve.” Use of masks were not required.
Seattle, a city that put in place measures to mandate social distancing and enforced the use of masks, drew sarcastic criticism from our Schuylkill County correspondent. But comparisons between Seattle and Schuylkill County communities are definitive.
In Seattle, a city of about 400,000 people in 1918, 1,513 people died of influenza or resulting complications. That’s a death rate of 0.3%. If Seattle had suffered the percentage of deaths that Minersville did during the 1918 pandemic, the city would have had suffered 24,000 deaths. So those masks that H.G.H complains about in the piece below, paired with early efforts to mandate social distancing, undoubtedly saved lives.
Read the full excerpt from the Pottsville Republican, November 18, 1918, below:
… it is not safe for any respectable insect or germ to get within the city limits.
A panic was almost created in the city [Seattle] when the daily paper announced a hundred new cases with eight more deaths. If they had had a Minersville life sized dose here every one at large on the streets would have to be encased in a sack, head, feet, and all.
This is a real life sized city with a population, say of a quarter or half million and try to imagine if you can a population of that sort walking about the streets masked to the eyes. You might incline to profanity or just bejiggered if you would do it but the chances are you would change your mind before long.
If you want to ride in a street car or taxi you must have a mask, if you want to buy soothing syrup for the baby you must have on a mask. If you want to tell your troubles to a policeman you must have your mask on, in fact you can’t yell for help while being held up in the heart of the town unless you first run to a drug store and buy a mask. Then the policeman may hear you if he is not mortally engaged himself in trying to repel a flu bug struggling to go through his own mask by the aid of tanks and a creeping barrage.
If you would rather walk to the top of the 42 story building just around the corner don’t buy a mask and you can climb to your heart’s content. In fact, Seattle doesn’t see you, doesn’t know you exist unless you wear a mask.
You can’t send a telegram, buy a coffin or get in or get out of the city unless you wear a mask, so you will change your mind before long and bejiggered and buy one and feel like a full fledged nut or highwayman on parade.
It would be far preferable to wear a gas mask or a baseball mask if they would do. They can’t see you if you don’t wear a mask in a store, but as soon as you hide your mug they are ready for business. Probably it does improve the appearance of some of us and it also has a tendency to save powde rand rouge [make-up]. One fellow who was tired of being treated like a kaiser on a tour of Belgium went into a drug store but the clerks didn’t see him as he shifted from one foot to the other in front of the cigar stand. Finally the clerks held a consultation and the proprietor was notified and came with firm and daring step to the meek and mild stranger and with all the hanteur of the Pacific Coast informed the weary would be customer that he could not be waited upon unless he wore a mask, only to be mildly informed that that was exactly what he came in to buy.
It looks like the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan or a convention of the Sons and Daughters of the Ancient Brotherhood of Western Train Bandits and Highwaymen. But they are getting away with it and the strange part of it is that most of them take it seriously and are half scared to death.
Flu may not furnish a pleasant death but it doesn’t torture the life out of you like the mask epidemic.
Remember – Seattle, a city of 400,000 souls in 1918, suffered 1,500 deaths.
Minersville, a town of 8,000 in 1918, suffered 500 deaths.
The difference: social distancing and the use of masks. They saved lives in 1918. They are saving lives today.
Don’t be like H.G.H.
Featured Image: The 39th Infantry Regiment marches down Second Avenue with their flu masks on, passing Cheasty’s Haberdasher in 1918. (National Archives)