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September 22, 2020

Wear A Mask Or Go To Jail: Vintage Photos Show San Francisco’s ‘Mask Slackers’ Got Arrested During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

In September of 1918, a global flu pandemic made entry into California. The first cases were detected among travelers — a man who had returned to San Francisco from a trip to Chicago and seamen aboard a vessel that arrived to the harbor in Los Angeles.

What happened over the fall and winter will sound familiar. City officials imposed “stay at home” orders and forced the closure of schools and places of “public amusement.” Court proceedings and church services moved outdoors. Tents, hotels, and large halls served as makeshift hospitals. Panic was everywhere.

A police officer escorts two men by their arms, one without a mask, near the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. The photo’s original caption suggests the men were being taken to jail: “Here we go right down to the Bastile.” (California State Library)

A policeman takes in a citizen for not wearing his flu mask properly in San Francisco in 1918. (California State Library)

A San Francisco police officer wearing a mask warns a man to put on a mask as well in 1918. The original caption accompanying included this line: “Say! Young Fellow Get a mask or go to jail.” (California State Library)

A policeman gives a woman a warning for not wearing a mask during the Spanish flu pandemic in San Francisco in 1918. (California State Library)

A policeman adjusts a citizen’s flu mask in San Francisco in 1918. (California State Library)

As the death toll climbed, measures became more severe, with forced quarantines and mandatory mask ordinances. The masks recommended during the 1918 pandemic were made of heavy-duty six-ply cotton gauze. They were thick and no particular joy to wear. People who refused to wear them or couldn’t be bothered were called “mask slackers” or “mask scoffers.” During World War I, the term slacker described people who neglected their patriotic duty, almost as bad as being a draft dodger.

In the debate over masks by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Seattle and Portland were cited as cities that had benefited from masking. Violators of the new San Francisco law would be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined between $5 (about $86 in 2020) and $100 and risked up to 10 days in jail. The city wasn’t fooling. By November 10, a San Francisco Examiner headline read, “1,000 Alleged Mask Slacker Cases in Jails.” Judges tried to clear this mass of mask arrest cases as fast as possible with fines or two days in jail.

A clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle on October 29, 1918. (The San Francisco Chronicle)

“Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer” – Bellingham Herald newspaper article October 28, 1918.

A clipping from a newspaper in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on January 18, 1919. (The Victoria Daily Times)

The city’s influenza numbers showed improvement less than three weeks after the mask ordinance went into effect. But, as in the current pandemic, opposite conclusions were drawn: Success could mean masks were no longer necessary, or could be a sign that the policy was working and should continue. That December, the mask order was lifted. Bay Area residents celebrated. In Oakland, one newspaper reported, “citizens made bonfires of their muzzles in the streets.”

But shortly after the mask bonfires, the Spanish flu reignited and cases climbed again. San Francisco reinstituted its mask rules in January 1919, triggering a rebellion that resulted in the formation of the Anti-Mask League. A mass meeting protesting the masks drew over 2,000 people. The league petitioned the city, demanding a rollback of the mask mandate, and officials complied a month later.

In Seattle, a similar narrative took hold. Once people were free of their masks, they refused to go back to them, even as flu cases started to rise again. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial in early December 1918 warned that reinstating health edicts would spark fear not of the flu, but of an excess of “regulatory zeal.” There was no indication, the editorial opined, that “another shutdown of business and revival of the mask would be tolerated.” Compliant Seattle was done with compliance.

A man offers a flu mask to passerby in San Francisco. (California State Library)

“Please, take one. They’re free.” San Francisco Red Cross volunteers doing their civic duty on the streets of San Francisco.

People wait in line to get flu masks to avoid the spread of Spanish influenza on Montgomery Street in San Francisco in 1918. (California State Library)

Open-air police court being held in Portsmouth Square, 1918. To prevent crowding indoors, San Francisco judges often hold sessions outdoors. (National Archives)

By the time the pandemic subsided in 1920, at least 50 million people had died worldwide. More than 600,000 of those were Americans, far more than who died in World War I.

In California, outcomes appeared to vary according to the quickness and aggressiveness of the response in the state’s largest cities. Los Angeles lost more than 2,700 souls. The toll in Oakland was about 1,400. In San Francisco, which researchers say acted more slowly, the death rate was substantially higher, leaving more than 3,000 people dead.

A group of mask-wearing citizens, Locust Avenue, California, during the flu pandemic of 1918. (Raymond Coyne/ Mill Valley Public Library)

Many observers of the time believed masks helped flatten the pandemic curve. When it came to stifling dissent, however, they proved an ineffective muzzle.


  1. Waxing nostalgic about when there was an actual pandemic? How many died back then compared to now?

    1. Dang that aged like spoiled milk behind a radiator XD. In this very real pandemic, the US is poised to crack 600k again early next months.




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