Historical essay
“All the World’s a Harem”: Perceptions of Masked Women during the 1918–1919 Flu Pandemic

“All the World’s a Harem”: Perceptions of Masked Women during the 1918–1919 Flu Pandemic

Jessica Brabble

Carlotta, with the drooping mouth; Esther, with the too-tilted nose, and Mary, the colleen with brown freckles, are taking full benefit of this temporary masked delusion…Carlotta, Esther, and Mary, and many other Carlottas, Esthers, and Marys, are making the most of the opportunity to show their eyes to advantage, forgetting the while about pug noses, large mouths, and freckles.1

During the influenza epidemic that ravaged the United States in the fall and winter of 1918 and 1919, cities across the country advised or required masks. Soon, discussions of masks took center stage across American media. Newspapers were filled with articles explaining how to make, wear, and purchase masks. From their inception, these discussions were focused on gender, and women in particular: how were women adjusting to the new normal? What was the public’s perception of women wearing masks? Readers of the October 29, 1918 edition of The Seattle Star got a peek into this new narrative in the quote above, implying women with less-than-desirable facial traits should be grateful for the temporary reprieve flu masks provided.

This stereotype of women wearing masks found expression in a cartoon published in the Muncie Evening Press on October 23, 1918.2 In this cartoon, a male patient pretends to have the influenza “just to get that pretty little nurse around and here she is wearing a mask.” Yet in the final frame, when the nurse removes the mask, which she is “sick of wearing,” she turns out to be less attractive than the male patient has imagined — leading him to announce, “Me? I’m cured!” This cartoon reinforced stereotypes as it sexualized the nurse’s appearance, ignoring her professional role. In the context of the 1918 influenza epidemic, however, this cartoon also illustrates how the image of the masked nurse became part of daily experience.

“Petey Might Have Known His Wife Would See to That,” Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, IN), October 23, 1918, p. 7.

This objectification of women and the sustained focus on appearance and sex appeal belies the ascendancy of women in the workforce and the role of the mask in self-expression. This article sets out to complicate the notion that women wearing masks during the 1918 influenza epidemic were solely objectified or sexualized. Instead, it explores how masks became gendered and how the media responded. It then goes on to relate this to the current Covid-19 epidemic, both in terms of resonances and divergences.

Nursing, Working Women & Masking

“Masks, not unlike the gas masks used by the soldiers in France, are being used by the nurses in the Wheeling district in the care of patients suffering with Spanish influenza,” reported The Wheeling Intelligencer on October 9, 1918.3 Elsewhere, the image of a Red Cross nurse wearing a flu mask, ready to do all she could to fight the epidemic, made its way into hundreds of newspapers across America. The message was clear: women were on the frontlines of a new kind of war and flu masks were their protection on the homefront.

Moreover, with so many men fighting abroad in WWI, women increasingly entered the paid and unpaid labor force outside of the home. This was heightened in the healthcare sector as nurses were called to action. One Ogden, Utah newspaper estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 new nurses would be needed to respond to the ravages of World War I and the flu epidemic.4 In Richmond, Virginia, nurses making home visits were provided with a large apron, soap, a nail brush, bichloride of mercury tablets, two gauze masks, and various medicines. They were told to adjust their masks over their nose and mouth; upon leaving the sick room, they were to carefully remove their masks and wash them thoroughly in an antiseptic solution.5 Nurses were regularly praised in the media for their fight against the flu. Historian Nancy Bristow argued that many nurses came to see the epidemic as confirmation of the importance of their profession and their own expertise.6

As masks were recommended for the broader public, photographs of women wearing masks while doing their regular occupations proliferated. A photograph of three women conductorettes in New York City illustrates how masks were part of a functional uniform, their shoes and skirts combining with more gender-neutral jackets and caps. Given that the New York City Health Department never required or even recommended masks to be worn by this public, the use of masks by women in designated occupations that engaged with the public confirms women’s roles as “essential employees,” to use a modern term.

Masks as a Form of Expression

But nurses weren’t the only women wearing masks in 1918. As all women were advised or required to wear masks, the mask was taken up as a vehicle for self-expression and even status signaling. This was reflected in the many articles covering the latest fashion trends and the DIY mask movement. For instance, in 1918 flu veils became popular for women seeking an alternative to the traditional gauze mask. Department stores advertised them as a “becoming and easy way to prevent yourself from getting the ‘flu’” and of having “that happy faculty of being pretty and bright in the midst of doleful times.”7 One woman, Anne Peters, made such an impression with her veil that word of her spread across multiple newspapers. “Miss Anne Peters is one of the few young girls who have solved the problem of appearing bewitchingly attractive with an influenza mask” that matched her cape and hat.8 Such articles point to the dual disciplining of women’s bodies as they had to both protect themselves from the flu, while remaining desirable.

Women began to use the mask as a site of creative expression with the embellishment of traditional masks using embroidery and lace. In Los Angeles, the Evening Express speculated that embroidered masks would become such a trend that girls would request them “in bright holly boxes” under the Christmas tree that year.9 Hollywood starlets took mask personalization to another level. Theda Bara, famous for her role in Cleopatra, even allegedly held a party to see who could create the best mask. Prizes were to be given for the daintiest, most grotesque, and most sheer mask. Bara herself created a mask made out of a contract signed by producer William Fox; “one saw the figures written in and from the amount of money it represented made Theda the winner when it came to expensive material used.”10

Women who chose to wear alternatives to the traditional mask were often sexualized and exoticized by the media. While some saw flu veils as a fashion choice, many journalists wrote about them also being provocative. For instance, Stockton columnist L. Clare Davis wrote, “All the world’s a harem…There are eyes of gray, there are eyes of blue, eyes of every size and every hue peeping from above the strainer worn more or less jauntily.”11 Here, it is clear that the term harem is not referring to the female spaces in a Muslim home, but rather to a particular Western conceptualization of harems that were akin to sex workers to be chosen from by a powerful male. This rendering of masked women as exotic sexual objects obscures their work, both volunteer and paid, to support and protect the nation during a time of war.

In describing female store clerks, one California journalist wrote: “All pretty maids, discreetly ‘veiled,’ as they were in the Arcade [dry goods store] even yesterday, look soulfully out from above their masks…You speak and they answer, rather a surprise, for you thought members of the harem were not permitted to speak with strangers.”12 In Ogden, another wrote, “Just because you see a mask don’t think you’re in Turkey–remember there’s flu not harems in the United States.”13 These examples illustrate the entwined exoticizing and sexualizing of masked women, as they become an alluring, costumed Other.

“Not a Turkish Harem, but Red Cross Workshop Unit Making ‘Flu’ Masks,” Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), October 6, 1918, p. 20.

Masks and Gender Today

As masks have once again become big news, women wearing masks continue to be objectified and sexualized. For instance, tweets by women who have been catcalled while wearing masks have gone viral in recent months, echoing problems that many women in 1918 and 1919 faced. The association of the mask with vulnerability and susceptibility, with their sexualized connotations, remain so feminized that it has led to men to disproportionately eschew mask wearing. Masks have even been dubbed “condoms of the face” perpetuating their link to sex and gender, drawing the symbolic association into the future.

Today, the gendered focus on masks in healthcare also creates a disjuncture with its representation in 1918 and 1919. The personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages that have dominated the coverage of Covid-19 tells a story in which healthcare workers, most of whom are women (90% of nurses in the United States and 75% of all healthcare workers), are at increased risk and thereby systematically devalued. This has meant a shift from 1918, when masks signaled women’s legitimacy as medical workers, to the 2019 failure of institutions to properly protect a largely female workforce.

Second, in light of PPE shortages, many people have turned to cloth masks. There has been a strong DIY and volunteer response that has been covered as largely female in today’s media. Although homemade masks were originally popularized because of the failure of governmental institutions to make medical grade PPE widely available, they have evolved into something more. Much like how women in 1918-1919 used masks as a form of expression in addition to protection, masks today have become a site of self-presentation and expression. Increasingly, lists of where to buy customized, stylish, or even designer masks have appeared on popular websites like Vogue and Forbes.

Third, women are represented as more compliant with masking recommendations. This compliance was mirrored in 1918, when men were far more likely to be arrested for disobeying mask mandates.14 The gendering of compliance is certainly not unique to masks, but may have important implications when applied to current mask refusal, particularly surrounding how it pertains to masculinity. Ultimately, the gendering of masks in the 1918 flu pandemic and the media response has generative resonances with today and calls us to deeply engage with the past as we understand the daily decisions we must make about whether to wear masks, when to wear them, how to wear masks, and which masks to wear.


  1. “Is it on Straight? ‘Flu’ Masks are not Chest Protectors!,” The Seattle Star (Seattle, WA), October 29, 1918, p. 4. Return to text.
  2. “Petey Might Have Known His Wife Would See to that,” Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, IN), October 23, 1918, p. 7. Return to text.
  3. “Nurses Wear Masks to Fight the ‘Flue,’” The Wheeling Intelligencer (Wheeling, WV), October 9, 1918, p. 5. Return to text.
  4. “Every Nurse in Ogden and Weber County to be Called on to Help During this Emergency,” The Ogden Standard (Ogden, UT), p. 7. Return to text.
  5. “Epidemic Forces Drastic Action,” The Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 6, 1918, p. 1. Return to text.
  6. Nancy K. Bristow, American Pandemic. The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 131–135. Return to text.
  7. “Anti-Flu Veils,” The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 18, 1918, p. 11; “And Flu Veils are Pretty,” The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), October 25, 1918, p. 3. Return to text.
  8. “Society Girl Originates Chic Mask,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 1918, p 7. The report was reprinted as “Miss Anne Peters Masks Mask Becoming Accessory,” Stockton Daily Evening Record (Stockton, CA), October 30, 1918, p. 4. Return to text.
  9. “‘Flu’ Mask Ball is Society’s Latest Fad,” Evening Express (Los Angeles, CA), December 15, 1918, p. 28. Return to text.
  10. “Flu Mask Party Enjoyed by Stars at Hollywood, Cal.,” Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), February 8, 1919, p. 11. Return to text.
  11. “Passed by the Censor,” Stockton Daily Evening Record (Stockton, CA), October 26, 1918, p. 2. Return to text.
  12. “Flu Masks Now Worn in Stores are Safe but Disconcerting,” The Humbolt Times (Eureka, CA), October 22, 1918, p. 1. Return to text.
  13. The Ogden Standard (Ogden, UT), November 3, 1919, p. 9. Return to text.
  14. We explore gender differences in arrests more thoroughly in a forthcoming essay, which will be linked from the project website. Return to text.

Featured image caption: “New York City Conductorettes Wearing Masks,” October 16, 1918. (Courtesy National Archives)

Jessica Brabble is a graduate student in the Department of History at Virginia Tech. Her research interests are in disability studies, eugenics, popular culture, and race. Her current work focuses on the use of bodies as spectacle at the North Carolina State fair at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.