For many of us, wearing a face mask is a new and unnerving experience. At first, the idea of using a mask to protect against the spread of coronavirus might seem uncomfortable and unpleasant, and some individuals believe that they don’t do any good.
However, a quick look at the history books shows us that face masks have been making appearances for hundreds of years. They’ve even been seen in collections by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen and pop star Ariana Grande.
Here’s a brief history of face masks.
Protection from the Plague
During the 17th century, doctors tending to those suffering from the plague wore protective clothing including a leather hood. This frightening-looking mask featured a long beak-like nose that contained perfumes and aromatics.
The primary function of these aromatics was to mask bad smells emitted by plague victims, but it was also believed that they were able to combat contagions that would cause the doctors themselves to get sick.
The Discovery of Bacteria on Dust
During the 19th century, it was common to see stylish ladies wearing veils made of lace. Although the masks were predominantly used to protect against dust, the discovery of bacteria on dust particles made them medically useful, too.
It was also during the 19th century that the benefits of a well-fitting cotton mask that covers the mouth and nose of the wearer were also noted. In 1878 a New York physician advised that they can be useful for slowing the spread of contagions during epidemics such as a cholera outbreak.
Masks continued to be used to protect against dust and pollution until today, and during WW2 it was common to see English people covering their faces with cloth masks to protect themselves from the dust created by bombs.
Masks to Prevent the Transmission of Diseases
The use of masks during surgery became more common at the turn of the 20th century when a Chicago-based physician reported her experiments on the transmission of bacteria between doctors and patients.
Then, a 1910 epidemic of pneumonia in northeast Asia was pinpointed as being transmitted via airborne contact, and masks were recommended to be worn by medics and the general public to reduce the spread of infections.
Masks were also commonly used for protection during the 1918 flu pandemic, and by the 1920s it was common for surgeons to wear masks while operating.
What Can We Learn About Face Masks From History?
The 1918 flu is considered the deadliest pandemic in modern history, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the way that the curve was flattened during the fight to contain the virus.
Mask-wearing was taken very seriously in the US during the outbreak, and citizens were regularly fined $10 for not using protective equipment. In one instance in San Francisco, a health officer shot three people because one of them refused to wear a mask despite it being mandatory.
The reason health officials and law-makers took mask-wearing so seriously is that quick interventions were shown to cut transmission rates by as much as 50%. This led to a much better outcome including a lower number of deaths, less strain on the healthcare system, and the ability for states to return to ‘normal’ faster.
History in the Making
Sooner or later, COVID-19 will also become history, and whether or not we chose to wear a face mask will always be remembered.
In fact, the Czech National Museum has opened a museum dedicated to the face masks worn during COVID-19 to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. The country has been less badly affected by coronavirus than some other parts of Europe, and it’s said that this is due, in part, to the Czech government being one of the first to insist that masks be worn outside the home.
So the question is, how do we want future generations to look back on how we as a society handled the pandemic? Will history show that we listened to the lessons from years gone by on how face masks can help flatten the curve?