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In April 2020, as the United States adjusted to new social-distancing protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus disease, the above-displayed photograph started circulating on social media that supposedly showed two women wearing masks in 1919 during the “Spanish flu” pandemic.
This is a genuine photograph. However, it was not taken in 1919 during the flu pandemic, and these masks were being worn for fashion, not medical, purposes.
This image is available via Alamy and presented with the title “Ladies’ fashion from 1913.” That image is also attached to a description in German that explains the trend imitated traditional veils worn in Turkey.
Here’s the original caption (translated via Google):
Eine Neue Schleiermode
Durch den Balkankrieg hat sich eine neue, einzigartige Mode herausgebildet: die Damen tragen neuerdings den seit Jahrhunderten in der Turkei ublichen Nasenchleier
A New Veil fashion
A new, peculiar fashion has emerged from the Balkan War: women have recently been wearing the nose veil that has been used in Turkey for centuries.
Although this particular photograph shows two fashionable women, people were encouraged to wear masks during the “Spanish flu” pandemic. Here’s a 1918 newspaper clipping from The Oakland Tribune announcing that police officers would start patrolling the streets to make sure people were wearing “flu masks”:
The 1918 H1N1 pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people (about a third of the world’s total population) and resulted in an estimated 50 million deaths, 675,000 of which occurred in the United States. Mandating people wear protective masks was just one method cities in the United States used to fight the disease.
According to CNN, the United States “led the world in mask wearing” during that pandemic. In some areas of the country, such as San Francisco, citizens were required to wear masks in public.
In October 1918, as San Francisco received the pandemic’s second wave, hospitals began reporting a rise in the number of infected patients.
On October 24, 1918, the city’s elected legislative body, the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, realizing that drastic action needed to be taken with over 4,000 cases recorded, unanimously passed the Influenza Mask Ordinance.
The wearing of face masks in public became mandatory on US soil for the first time.
A number of images showing this unusual time in American history can be found on Getty Images. Here are a few photographs showing police officers, sanitation workers, and everyday citizens wearing masks in an effort to prevent the spread of disease during the 1918 pandemic: