The Anti-Mask League of 1919

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. In September 1918 San Francisco suffered from Spanish Flu pandemic. Initial mask wearing was good — around 80 percent.

By November cases were down, and public health officials recommended re-opening the city.

Residents rushed to entertainment venues after having been denied this communal joy for months. The Mayor himself was fined by his own police chief after going to a show without a mask.

But a second wave surged in Dec 1918, and SF’s Health Officer again urged people to wear masks voluntarily.

Left to their own devices, most citizens – by one count 90 % – refused to wear masks. Businesses, concerned about Christmas sales, opposed. So did Culinary Workers union. San Francisco residents were fed up. This was the second wave of the pandemic, and they had already spent months between Sept and Nov being hassled, fined and even arrested for not having a mask on. Challenges of constitutionality were heard.

Christian Scientists objected, arguing that it was “subversive of personal liberty and constitutional rights.” Civil libertarians argued that if health officials could force them to wear masks, then it could force them to inoculate “or any experiment or indignity.” The San Francisco Chronicle turned against the notion of mandatory masks.

Was the death rate high enough to justify remasking?

Wasn’t this just the return of normal seasonal colds?

How much was this due to a public ‘scare’ and hype?

An op-ed ran in the local paper with the headline ‘What’s The Use?’ after a man got sick despite following public health guidelines. A promised vaccine turned out to be bogus.

100s of citizens congregated on Dec 16 to debate a masking order.

On Dec. 18 someone had sent what appeared to be an improvised explosive device to San Francisco’s public health official signed,

The story via historian Alfred W. Crosby:

San Francisco’s Public Health Officer stuck by his guns, refusing to back down, and saying there was evidence that masks helped!.

He implored the public to look to the data! Wear masks! They help!

But the public declined to listen to SF’s Public Health Officer.

On Dec 19, officials voted down a mandatory mask order.

“The dollar sign is exalted above the health sign,” sighed the public health officer.

By far the worst day of flu/pneumonia deaths followed on Dec 30. Flu got worse in San Francisco when masking was voluntary.

A representative of organized labor relented: “It is of no time to quibble over the worth of the mask. It is the best thing we have found to date, and if you have anything better, for God’s sake, give it to us.”

So on Jan 10, 1919 local officials voted to approve a new mandatory mask order after 600 new cases were reported that day.

Citizens were arrested/fined for not having masks on, but widespread disobedience of the order continue & large numbers of citizens refused to wear masks.

Protests continued:

Over 2,000 people attended an event formed by San Franciscans called themselves ‘THE ANTI-MASK LEAGUE,’ denouncing the mandatory masking ordinance

The gathering was of “public spirited citizens, skeptical physicians and fanatics,” writes historian Crosby.

Moderates in the Anti-Mask League wanted to circulate an anti-mask petition. Extremists wanted to initiate recall proceedings of SF’s Public Health Officer.

Chaos broke out until someone shouted, “I rented this hall and now I’m going to turn out the lights.”

The San Francisco Public Health Officer was a man named Dr. William C. Hassler.

Ignored by those who didn’t want to believe the data, threatened with violence, Hassler was conscientious and performed his job with distinction.

Its unknown how many people became sick DUE to the Anti-Mask League event, where 1000s gathered to protest without masks. So we may not know how many people, if any, became sick due to this congregation. But safe to say it was not helpful during pandemic.

On Jan 17, the day the masking ordinance went into effect, the number of new cases/deaths declined, the first decline in quite some time. This continued until the epidemic faded, a signal that the mask ordinance had helped wipe out the Spanish Flu in San Francisco.

Of course, the SF Public Health Officer — the 1919 version of Dr. Fauci, got no credit for the decline in influenza cases.

People continued to gripe about the masking even after the pandemic had been stalled by it.

No one seemed to credit masking for the success of blunting the Spanish Flu in San Francisco — because, well, the crisis faded due to its success

“Rarely has the evidence in support of a scientific hypothesis been more overwhelming and more deceiving,” writes historian Crosby.

Ultimately San Francisco was one of the American cities hardest hit by the Spanish Flu. 673 per 100,000 people died during the pandemic due to influenza and pneumonia, per University of Michigan. 50K cases total and 3,500 were killed, per Crosby.

Masks being worn by players during a baseball game, in newspaper Mar 1, 1919 via The Independent

The 1918/1919 protests against mask wearing and other public health measures have parallels to today.

We learn through this episode that various groups of Americans have been pushing back against public health measures for more than a hundred years — and for similar reasons.

In learning about the Anti-Mask League of 1919, we see many of the same human elements as today:

A portion of the population resistant to the measures; a business community crying out for relief; a second wave after an initial loosening; threats to public health officials.


The University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia
The San Francisco Chronicle’s archives
America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby
American Pandemic by Nancy Bristow
via twitter

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