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A cultural exploration of face masks during disease outbreaks

Face masks have become part of our daily lives in a way few would have anticipated only months ago. Yet the coronavirus pandemic is not the first American crisis in which face coverings have played a central role. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History is preserving artifacts from this pandemic -- and placing them in historical context. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Face coverings, they are now part of our lives in ways that few could have imagined.

    The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has launched an effort to preserve artifacts from the pandemic.

    Jeffrey Brown takes the long view of masks now and in the past. It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They're a means of protection, a way to express yourself, or remember others, something to debate and fight over.

  • Woman:

    Stay in your house.

  • Man:

    You have a right to stay in our house.

  • Woman:

    You have a right to stay in our house.

  • Man:

    You have every right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Masks, small coverings that uncover much about the times and the people living through them.

    Medical historian Alexandra Lord:

  • Alexandra Lord:

    The masks give us an insight into what it felt like to wear a mask, to design a mask, to choose a mask.

    And so that will give us a real insight into how people felt during the pandemic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Medical mask history goes back to those now well-known bird masks of the 1600s. Their beaks were filled with herbs to cleanse what was thought to be contaminated air, and help doctors endure the smell of decay and death during bubonic plague.

    The use of the medical mask as we know them came much later.

  • Alexandra Lord:

    So, they really come into their own in the late 19th century, when you have that advent and emergence of that idea of germ theory. That takes a long time to catch on. It's several decades before Americans overwhelmingly embrace that idea.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The first, and it turns out last, mass wearing of masks by Americans, until now, was in the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

    Dr. Jeremy Brown is author of "Influenza."

  • Jeremy Brown:

    They were extraordinarily important.

    In fact, the doctors at the time realized that masks were basically all that they had. You should remember that antibiotics hadn't been discovered, so there was no way to cure the secondary lung infections. And there were no antiviral medicines.

    So the only thing that you could do was to prevent the spread of the disease. And that involved wearing masks. It was well understood by then that masks are useful.

  • Jeremy Brown:

    Even so, the death toll was extraordinary, some 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the U.S. The pandemic lasted more than two years, rolling out in three waves.

    For the most part, historians say, Americans accepted masks.

  • Jeremy Brown:

    Everybody was using masks. There are many wonderful historic pictures of a batter wearing a mask at a baseball game, of people wearing masks in the street. People getting on trams were wearing masks. Police officers were lined up wearing masks.

  • Alexandra Lord:

    One of my favorite images is of a postman wearing a mask while he's delivering the mail.

    And what's interesting about that is, you think that that's not someone who is necessarily coming in direct contact with individuals. He's just putting mail in a slot. But his desire to protect himself is still very, very strong, in case he does have an encounter on the streets.

  • Jeremy Brown:

    But masks, then and now, also became a battleground. Today, we see protests and other acts of resistance…

  • Woman:

    This is insane. This is insane.

  • Jeremy Brown:

    And fights erupting.

  • Woman:

    That man harassed me for not wearing a mask.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Back then, "Three Shot in Struggle With Mask Slacker," access to buildings and services denied, arrests made.

    It came to a head in San Francisco, where a mask requirement was rescinded when things improved, then restored by the mayor when flu cases spiked again in a second wave. This time, some residents balked and formed the Anti-Mask League.

  • Jeremy Brown:

    The coalition of people refusing to wear masks included businessmen who thought that it would put people off coming into their stores because they had this reminder of disease on them.

    It included what we would call today libertarians, who felt that it was infringement of their human rights. And there were also a few skeptical physicians among them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And how much influence or impact did they end up having?

  • Jeremy Brown:

    Well, they ended up having a great influence.

    In fact, they — when the health board tried to reestablish its ordinance wearing of masks, it was overturned. There were demonstrators who came out to the meetings. And that ordinance to make masks once again mandatory in San Francisco failed.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A lot of that sounds very familiar to what we're seeing today. Does it strike you that way?

  • Jeremy Brown:

    It does.

    And the more I look into not only the 1918 pandemic, but pandemics in general, the more you see all kinds of reverberations that tell us that what is happening in our society today should probably have been very well-predicted.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    After 1918, though, the country wanted to move on.

    Not only cultural memory, but the masks themselves were lost. This one, saved in a scrapbook, is one of the few that survive.

    Today, historians want to preserve and remember, the improvised DIY masks, the messages of our era, the fashion statements, all of it and more, masks, hazmat suits, and other artifacts.

    Alexandra Lord We don't know if, in the future, people will want to forget about the pandemic and to move on, or if people will put the objects from the pandemic in a box in their attic. We really don't know how people will respond.

    So, we want to make sure that we're talking to people now, so that they understand the importance of saving these objects for the future.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One day, that is, when this is over, future generations may look back to understand the meaning of a mask.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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