What were face masks like during the 1918 flu pandemic?

Many Sonoma County residents made face masks out of gauze, but a group of Petaluma women preferred chiffon.|

A face mask protects public health during a deadly pandemic, but for people in need of a splash of positivity during dark times it’s also a fashion accessory.

Sequins, political messages, cartoon characters, are all featured on face masks today. And there’s plenty to consider when buying one, like nose wires, adjustable elastic ear bands, filtration, layers, design, color, comfort and fit. But when the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic hit Sonoma County, masks weren’t quite as sophisticated.

World War I ended on Nov. 11 of that year and as a result of wartime efforts supplies were limited.

Face masks were first spotted in Sonoma County in October 1918, when train passengers from San Francisco were seen wearing them on the train depots.

The sight of masked travelers was regarded as “an unusual one and attracted much attention,” according to reports in the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

Mask mandates came across the county shortly after. People made their own masks out of fabric, gauze or even cheesecloth.

Homemade mask making directions were printed in local papers. Four strips of gauze nice inches wide were folded into halves, then thirds to make masks “six thicknesses of gauze.” It was then stitched together and pleated, taped and threaded.

Instructions asked that a piece of black thread be added to the center of masks “to designate the outside.”

Although plain, white gauze masks were common, some Petaluma women used chiffon and crepe de chine fabric to make “fashioned dainty flu masks” that they considered “more effective than the other materials owing to the close meshes,” according to a November 1918 gossip column in the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

That month a “warning to mask slackers” was also printed in the paper. Police notified residents of mask requirements and enforced it.

“The officers were very gentlemanly about it but at the same time let the people without masks know that they mean business and few objected,” the Argus-Courier reported in 1918. “Mask slackers” were to be taken before a police judge and would “no doubt be assessed a snug amount for the Red Cross.”

In Sonoma County 175 people died of the flu during the pandemic in 1918 and 1919, according to the Museum of Sonoma County.

See the gallery above for photos from the 1918 flu pandemic.

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