This article is the second in a series about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic locally. The first article examined stay at home orders in Coronado over 100 years ago. This piece reveals the interesting history of masks in 1918.
As for mask protection, The Strand reported in Vol. 7, No. 31, December 14, 1918, that “A feller can’t get his breath through six thicknesses of cheesecloth, without considerable work. Now, we know how a dog feels with a muzzle on, in hot weather.”
Fortunately, today’s masks are more comfortable to wear than having to breathe through six layers of cheesecloth. Yet, much like today, there was concern over wearing or not wearing masks. In the Coronado paper, there was a short entry under the title of “Everybody Mask!” which read in total: “O you people! Put on your masks like good children and lets [sic.] hurry and get out of this state of quarantine! It really is not a joke ... So stop looking at those who are following the instructions of the health authorities, in stamping out the flu epidemic, as if they were freaks, and get your mask on pronto. It is better to be a live freak than a dead jokester!” [The Strand, Vol. 7, No. 25, November 2, 1918].
In October 1918, the San Diego City Council had voted to make masks optional and the number of influenza cases and deaths rose significantly. An additional 350 people died within the next three months. Eventually, masks were deemed mandatory with people not wearing them being arrested and fined. [Wilkens, John. “The 1918 Flu Epidemic…”. The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 15, 2020].
There was also instruction on what kind of mask to use. The October 26, 1918, paper said “This is a time when we need to keep cool, using every precaution suggested by the authorities, even to the use of masks when in close contact with other persons in business or other relations. There is not the slightest doubt of the protection afforded by a properly adjusted face mask which should be made of three layers of butter cloth. Avoid using one made of cheese cloth, which is too loosely woven to prevent the passage of droplets of mucus in coughing and sneezing.” [The Strand, Vol. 7, No. 24, October 26, 1918]
As for those in the 65 years + high-risk category today, there was mention of a different age group succumbing to the disease in the early 1900s. Under the title of “The Epidemic Caused Very Serious Loss” in the January 4, 1919, paper, the article stated “That the economic loss to the nation from the recent influenza epidemic amounted to ‘millions of the best years of life,’ because the average age of those who died was under 30, was pointed out recently by Actuary Henry Moir, of New York, at the thrift conference which was held in connection with the twelfth annual convention of the Association of Life Insurance Presidents. Mr. Moir, who is president of the Actuarial Society of America, said that a recent investigation of insured lives covering a period of 15 years’ experience showed that those who had died as a result of the influenza epidemic should have lived on the average to be 55 to 60 years old, under normal conditions.” [The Strand, Vol. 7, No. 34, January 4, 1919] Even in San Diego, the flu seemed to affect the young and healthy population more than the elderly and children.
Whether to open up schools or not was a consideration back then as it is today. In the November 2, 1918, issue of the Strand, an article stated that, at the instruction of the school board, public schools would remain closed until further notice.. A month earlier, in October, the schools and the churches were allowed to reopen by order of the Board of Health. [The Strand, Vol. 7, No. 24, October 26, 1918] Then, things closed up again. Sound familiar? Fortunately, overall, during the 1918-1920 period, Coronado appeared to be on the outskirts of the epidemic battleground. With the small population, the fresh ocean air, the geographical distance from the mainland, and the willingness to cooperate with the board of health, Coronado’s citizens survived the pandemic.