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‘Unconstitutional,’ ‘Autocratic,’ ‘Muzzles’: Anti-Mask Sentiment In The 1918 Flu Pandemic

Nurses in Lawrence, Mass., care for victims of the flu epidemic in 1918.
Nurses in Lawrence, Mass., care for victims of the flu epidemic in 1918.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Over one hundred years ago, in 1918, the United States faced a deadly flu pandemic that forced citywide shutdowns and mask ordinances across the country in order to slow the spread of disease. 

But then as now, a vocal contingent of people resisted masks and refuted their protective properties, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Mask resisters were labeled “slackers” by the Red Cross and were sometimes fined or even arrested for going out without a face covering. Slackers retaliated with flare, cutting holes in their masks to smoke cigars or even, in San Francisco, banding together to form the Anti-Mask League. Anti-maskers are still here a century on, and although they’ve become memes on social media (see: Karens), the implications of not wearing masks are serious— experts say that if everyone in California wore a mask, coronavirus infections would decrease dramatically. Today on AirTalk, we’re learning more about the social history of masks in the 1918 pandemic and the connections to today. Thoughts? Give us a call at 866-893-5722.


J. Alexander Navarro, historian and Assistant Director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan; he tweets @JAlexNav