*Average Read Time: 7 minutes
At the beginning of the pandemic last year, when the alarm to wear masks began to sound, some felt it important to call attention to the eery similarities between COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu of 1918. However, the comparison fell predominantly upon deaf ears as the natural preference of the human memory is to forget or ignore unpleasantries of years past, rather than to remember.
Despite over a century of science backed evidence highlighting the importance and effectiveness of social distancing and mask wearing in the prevention of viral spread, here we are today nearly 550,000 deaths later and counting. A result of science being largely ignored. More shocking, is that 550,000 deaths (again – AND COUNTING) is quite comparable to that of the Spanish Flu, which resulted in an estimated 675,000 US deaths during a time when science was less advanced, state to state travel both less plausible and less frequent, and the overall population of the planet, far smaller. I can understand the natural inclination to want to ignore these facts as quite frankly, paying mind to them makes it hard not to question the overall intelligence of the current human race.
Always curious about history, I found myself wondering if the Spanish Flu gave birth to the mask. After some digging, I was surprised to find that the origin of the face mask dates back much further than I ever expected. Scarves woven from silk and gold threads from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) are believed to be the earliest item in Chinese history most similar to the face masks of today. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the 13th century travelogue written by the famous explorer, who traveled in China during the Yuan Dynasty, wrote of the emperor’s servants covering their mouths and noses with silk scarves.
When the Black Death spread to Europe in the 14th century, art from that time period often depicts people with clothes covering their faces. More notably, French doctor Charles de Lorme in the 16th century invented the beak mask. This mask extended down over the nose and mouth from a set of goggles resembling glasses to ensure visibility. At the end of the “beak” he placed scented spices or medicinal oils and leaves like mint leaves and camphor to help filter disease. During the same century, famous painter Leonardo da Vinci proposed soaking cloth in water and placing it over the nose and mouth to filter out toxic bacteria emitted from people’s respiratory systems.
In 1827, Scottish scientist Robert Brown discovered “Brownian Motion”, which proved the protective efficacy of masks from dust and other air particles. In 1848, Lewis Hassley invented the first American rendition of the modern mask designed for miners. Hassley obtained the first patent for a protective face mask, a major milestone in the history of the mask. This mask looks similar to a gas mask. Hassley’s patent is still available in the archives of the US Patent Office.
French biologist, microbiologist, chemist and doctor Louis Pasteur proved the presence of bacteria in the air in an 1861 study, which encouraged more people to pay mind to the potential importance of face masks. The confirmed presence of bacteria in the air motivated him to create a mask made from six layers of gauze that was then sewed onto the collar of his surgical gown in 1899. It would be flipped up to cover the nose and mouth during surgery or interaction with the ill. This design is thought to be the true origin of the modern medical mask which gradually evolved into having ties that could be hung on the ears.
Chinese medical scientist Wu Liande during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) invented a mask made of two layers of gauze, called “Wu’s Mask”, in response to a plague spreading across Northeast China during that time. With several outbreaks of infectious diseases, the flu and smog from modern industrialization, the materials used to construct modern masks continued to evolve to better filter viruses and pollutant particulates.
As a result of the SARS epidemic in 2003 and increasing smog, the Chinese adopted and embraced mask wearing as a standard practice in modern society. In 2012 the term “PM2.5” became more commonly known and understood and masks like the N95 and KN90, capable of filtering out fine particulate matter, became highly popular and widely accepted as the modern standard. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. better known as 3M, began producing these masks in 1967 after an employee became inspired by women’s disposable bras and identified the potential benefits of disposable masks as a protective barrier to protect worker’s noses and lungs from harsh environments such as those found in the mining and smelting industries.
In looking specifically at the history of the mask during the Spanish Flu, it’s important to note that the first recorded infection was March 4, 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas detected in a US Army private stationed there. While the US was still reeling from WWI, it was largely seen as an act of devout patriotism to wear masks in order to protect US troops. As one Red Cross PSA put it at the time, “The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker”. While mask wearing was widely accepted throughout the two-year period in which the flu ravaged the US, pockets of anti-maskers cropped up around the country. An anti-mask coalition was even formed in San Francisco. In an attempt to combat these groups, the police instituted harsh fines and prison sentences for those caught without masks.
Similar to the mask debate we’ve seen play out over the past year, many of the materials from which masks were constructed during the Spanish Flu were not as protective as they thought, contributing to continued spread of the flu. Sound familiar? My greatest motivator for designing and producing the premium quality, highly protective masks and filters we sell today, was to combat the cheaply made, poorly constructed, insufficient masks oversaturating the market.
After the US recovered from the Spanish Flu, masks all but disappeared from the vernacular. Meanwhile in other countries, especially Asian countries, masks remain a staple accessory of modern society. During the past year we’ve seen the typical outbreak of seasonal influenza nearly disappear, an obvious unforeseen benefit of social distancing and mask wearing practices set in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In past years the US has seen as many as 61,000 people die from the flu in one flu “season” which typically lasts only 5 months from November through March. One might wonder why we don’t wear masks during flu season every year. In looking at the hard numbers, some might even begin to question…should we?
Stay safe, stay stylish, stay humble.
Founder & CEO, Love Saves Apparel PBC