Unmasking History

There is a saying that history repeats itself, and in some cases this does seem to be true. Today, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are dusting off their sewing machines to sew face masks to help prevent the spread of this virus. Others are looking for workable no-sew options or wondering where masks can be purchased. Face masks have not been a regular part of our culture recently, but just over 100 years ago, masks were common topics of discussion in the newspaper and in every-day life.

In Duluth in 1918, the Red Cross was already quite active in organizing volunteers to make surgical dressings or bandages for the war effort. By the fall of 1918, it became apparent that masks would be needed for nurses and people near the new outbreak of “Spanish Influenza” in far-away places and then indeed in Duluth itself.

In 1918, scientists and others did know that influenza was contagious, even if they didn’t fully understand that it was caused by a virus. Schools and libraries were closed in the fall of 1918 to help prevent the spread, but gathering together for sewing masks and bandages seemed exempt from these restrictions. On October 12, 1918, women in West Duluth were urged to join work sessions that could hold as many as 40-50 people.

Duluth Herald 10/12/1918, p. 12

This tendency for women to gather together to solve problems was well-intentioned, even if it did get a bit of fun poked at it in this 1918 comic strip, which ran in the Duluth Herald on October 17, 1918.

The same issue with a shortage of masks to purchase or otherwise find them led to the publication of some directions, as well. The Duluth Herald wrote on October 16th: “The Red Cross announces that on account of the shortage of materials and the great demand for masks, it will be necessary for people desiring the influenza masks in large quantities to furnish their own” and offered to demonstrate how to make a mask to anyone who wanted to stop down at the Armory Red Cross office to learn.





Thankfully we now have other ways to share mask-making techniques, and have a larger understanding of social distancing. By October 26th, there were still calls for gathering together to make materials for the war effort, but at least everyone was requested to wear a mask:

While we experience some unprecedented times with our current virus in 2020, may we take comfort that some of Duluth’s earlier residents also went through this, and the days of wearing masks eventually ended. We can also be grateful that our own mask-making efforts can be done at home and shared more widely via the internet and social media, and that our own knowledge of social distancing is also helping to keep us safe.

Written by Gina Temple-Rhodes



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