Susan R. Grayzel: Face masks are a cultural phenomenon then and now

The Daily Mail April 25, 1915

As we confront an unexpected pandemic, we try to do what we can to protect ourselves and those who are dear to us. We are advised to wash our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, to maintain at least six feet of distance between ourselves and others, and, increasingly, we are advised to wear masks.

Americans were initially told that masks did little good to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We also heard that those who are well should not wear masks so that they would be available to health care workers. This always seemed contradictory. If masks aided doctors and nurses, then wouldn’t they help us? Over the last week the mainstream media has reported that masks, even simple ones made at home, could provide some protection to the wearer. How-to videos proliferate on the web and the message is becoming clear: We should all be wearing masks now. Since they are hard to find in stores, making masks at home can help us to pass the time as we shelter in place.

This is not the first time in recent history that a nation has been called to make protective masks at home. On April 22, 1915, a new era of warfare began as German troops deployed lethal chlorine gas shells at the Second Battle of Ypres. Militaries encountered a new and terrifying weapon that poisoned the air, and without any equipment to protect against it.

A week after the battle, the British Army asked civilians to make homemade respirators, basic gas masks out of ordinary household materials—cotton gauze, cotton wool, and thin elastic. It was, as a newspaper proclaimed at the time, a “rush job for women,” and the women responded.

Within 48 hours, a “deluge of respirators” overwhelmed the Royal Army Depot. Across Britain, in small rural towns and large cities, women sewed a defense against the weapons of modern industrialized war. Tens of thousands of such basic masks were sent to the Western Front in the late spring of 1915.

The punchline to this story: The masks ended up being useless. When dry, they could not block out chlorine gas and, when wet, it proved difficult to breathe through them.

A generation later, at the outset of World War II, the fear of large-scale targeting of civilians with poison gas made state-sanctioned civilian gas masks a facet of everyday life for millions. In Britain, some civilians expressed gratitude to their government for looking after its population. Others expressed their discomfort with the idea of wearing devices that hid the face, made communication challenging, and were a vibrant reminder of a constant existential threat.

The British civilian gas masks of the Second World War, like the primitive respirators created by thousands of women in 1915, ended up being futile because they were never needed. Yet, they serve as a powerful emblem of a communal effort to sustain life in the face of devastating attacks aimed at civilians.

We are not at war. The novel coronavirus is behaving like the pathogen it is and all of us must be part of the collective endeavor to sustain our lives and our communities. The face masks we are being asked to make and wear may, at the very least, help us to avoid touching our faces while they contain some of the spread of our virus-laden droplets. But the suggestion that we all need masks is also a reminder that, unlike many places during the Second World War, there is no official policy or reassurance about this. Nothing is being provided to those without the resources or skills to make their own masks, but who are nonetheless at risk.

The civilian gas masks of the Second World War embodied the commitment of a society and a government willing to try to save the lives of as many as it could. The modern face mask of this pandemic may well become a symbol of our willingness to protect others as well as ourselves, but that is only if those of us who can make masks are making sure that everyone has them.

Susan Grayzel

Susan R. Grayzel, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Utah State University. She just completed a Fulbright Scholarship to University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, and last fall was a visiting fellow at All Souls College at Oxford University. Most recently, she co-edited “Gender and the Great War” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Her current work in progress, “The Age of Gas Masks: Chemical Weapons and Civilian Bodies in Imperial Britain, 1915-45,” is under contract with Cambridge University Press.