As thousands fell ill in the Coal Region in October 1918, masks became a popular item for residents to wear as they tried to go about their daily business in a world gone mad. Unlike other municipalities, take Seattle for example, most Coal Region communities did not strictly enforce the wearing of masks to prevent the spread of pandemic influenza.
The use of face masks by residents, especially health care workers, led to a curious phenomenon seen on the streets of Scranton in late October. As more and more residents of the Lackawanna County city voluntarily donned masks, the news boys on the street wanted in on the action. News boys were a feature of any community in the early 20th century. Most were working class children with little opportunity who found hawking newspapers as a way to make some money and their way in a harsh world. But it was important to remember that these were just boys.
A reporter for The Tribune of Scranton vividly described the “newsies” irrational desire for any and all gauze masks and connected these efforts to boyhood whims. The story is a fascinating window into life during the worst pandemic in American history.
From The Tribune, October 28, 1918:
Newsboys Plead for Gauze Masks
Storm Red Cross Surgical Dressings Quarters with Unusual Plea.
The newsboys want masks.
Nobody knows why they have such a fascination for them, unless it is just because it is in the nature of the small boy to want every new and strange thing, regardless of the real value of the thing. From time immemorial he has stuffed his pockets full of crooked nails, broken pen knives, pebbles, bits of metal and every other conceivable thing that nobody else wanted. They were of intrinsic value to him.
Now epidemic fighters are wearing masks, not because masks are a beautiful and comfortable thing, but because it is demanded that they wear them. And the small boys’ greatest desire is to wear them, too.
Yesterday so many newsboys crowded the street in front of the surgical supplies workroom on Linden Street, where a basket full of masks could be plainly seen in the window, that policemen finally had to be called to clear the way for the workers to go in and out, and the window washer also had to be sent for to wipe away the smudgy marks on the window panes. And the boys have been gathering there for days, begging and pleading for masks. When asked why they want them no reason is ever given.
Two little boys secured them somewhere, and went about selling their papers wearing them in the most approved manner, quite the envy of the other less fortunate newsies.
Their faces were dirty, their hands were dirty, there were no germs floating about in the clear outdoor air more deadly than must have reposed in the smudges already on their little noses – but masks were the thing of the hour – they must have masks.
And this is all the explanation there is. If there is a man who cannot remember how he longed for something he could not have, something new and strange and useless, or something like the grown-ups had, how that thing became the most desired and important thing in all the world to him, then he has forgotten how to understand the soul of the little newsboy or of any little boy, and he has forgotten some very important things.
He will never understand why the newsboy stands at the door eagerly looking through the screen at the Linden Street Red Cross workroom and pleads just to possess – a mask.
This story brings to mind the traumas these children must have faced in those dangerous days. Some assuredly had sick relatives at home or in the emergency hospital. Hundreds of residents had already died in Scranton by that stage in the pandemic. Living through the 1918 pandemic assuredly left a lasting mark for these boys who made a small living on delivering the dark, depressing news of the day.
Featured Image: A newsboy with his mask in Seattle, Washington in 1918. (Seattle Times)