In the fall of 1918, seven young people were photographed wearing masks lined up near a railroad track in Mill Valley, California. One woman wore a sign around her neck: “Wear a Mask or Go To Jail.” The catalog record associated with the photograph lists the date, November 3, 1918, the photographer, Raymond Coyne, the title, “Locust Avenue, Masks On,” and a caption: “A group of people standing outdoors wearing masks over their mouths. This was probably during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.”
In late spring 2020, in the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, this photograph, available from the Mill Valley Library Historical Reading Room, as well as the phrase, wear a mask or go to jail, circulated widely through social media and in other publications. Masks and shirts with this slogan were available for purchase from numerous online vendors. The photograph and phrase have also been referenced in articles examining masks in 1918 as examples of health policy and resistance to mask wearing.
When we began our research on flu masks in May 2020, we hoped to contribute to scholarly discourse endorsing the use of masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Our research on mask mandates in American cities, on enforcement measures, on popular responses, and on the role of public health officials used empirical evidence and scholarly analysis to reinforce the essential message in summer and fall of 2020 that wearing masks in indoor spaces would slow the spread of disease, improve public health, and shorten the pandemic.
As we approach the third anniversary of the first widespread mask requirements in American history since 1918, we find ourselves rethinking the connections between historical analysis and contemporary behavior. Whereas three years ago we looked for ways to use history to urge changes in public behavior, the most recent debates about masks have raised questions about effectiveness that we thought had been resolved early in the pandemic. We now look back to the history of 1918 with a different question: how can we use history to understand collective and individual behaviors that are inconsistent with, and even directly oppositional to, scholarly consensus about best practices? This photograph of seven masked individuals, one wearing a sign, “Wear a mask or go to jail,” suggests more complex meanings to us now as the question of masking shifts from dealing with the current pandemic to anticipating the next one.
A close examination of this photograph reveals important connections between masking now and a century ago. This photograph was taken at a time when the people of Mill Valley were living under a mask mandate, imposed about two weeks after the epidemic first reached coastal California. In this small community, as across the United States, the epidemic began slowly and then accelerated quickly. On October 19, the weekly Mill Valley Record republished a circular from the US Surgeon General, which included a graphic comparing the epidemic to serving on the front lines of the war. On October 26, Health Officer Thorndike and the Board of Health were “actively taking measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic.” By this time, fifty-four cases and two deaths were attributed to the epidemic; grade schools were closed, church services canceled, and all public gatherings prohibited.
On October 28, Mill Valley imposed a mask ordinance declaring “that the spread of said disease may be arrested and materially abated and prevented by means of the wearing of the mask…and that the public health and safety require that such masks be so worn by all persons within the town of Mill Valley until such epidemic shall have been wholly abated.” This ordinance was published on November 2, the day before these seven people gathered on the train tracks.
By this time, they would likely have been exposed to numerous reports of mask ordinances in the surrounding communities. On October 25, the Oakland Tribune declared, “Wear Mask, Says Law, or Face Arrest.” On October 26, the San Jose Evening News used the same language as the sign depicted in the photograph: “Wear a Mask, or Go to Jail, is Order.” Newspapers from Oakland and San Francisco, which likely circulated across the Bay Area, reported dozens of arrests, with some individuals sentenced to ten days in jail for violating the mask ordinance.
Enforcement of mask ordinances also occurred in Mill Valley. The Mill Valley Record reported on November 9 that four men had been arrested: Chris Armbuster, Frank Mackenzie, R. I. Wisler, and Walter Hinckly. These four were summoned before a judge and fined $30 each (the equivalent of about $600 now).
The sign worn by the masked woman standing by the train tracks in Mill Valley was thus likely inspired by the repeated warnings in regional newspapers that citizens must wear masks or face consequences, including the possibility of arrest. “Wear a mask or go to jail” was, in fact, an accurate summary of the law and a description of common patterns of human behavior in the Bay Area during the epidemic.
Yet a second photograph of the same group on the same day suggests a contrasting interpretation relevant to our own experience of living with the Covid-19 pandemic. This second photograph depicts the same seven men and women, with one additional man now positioned in the center of the image. The most important difference is that all the masks have been removed from faces: four masks are pushed below chins, two are dangling from an ear, and one has been fully removed. The “wear a mask or go to jail” sign is gone.
Examining these two photographs together provides a different perspective on the meaning of mask wearing and specifically the warning of “wear a mask or go to jail.” By removing their masks, these eight people are defying the city ordinance while also flouting public health guidelines to maintain social distancing. Standing close to each other unmasked is behaving in a way that spreads disease, as was well documented in 1918 and again in 2020.
Comparing these two photographs suggests yet another interpretation of the meaning embedded in mask wearing in the context of an epidemic. “Wear a mask or go to jail” appears less as an exhortation to good behavior or a warning against transgressions, and more as an ironic commentary of what people know they should be doing even as they selectively decide to obey or defy these legal requirements. Wearing a mask and displaying a sign thus appear as a form of performance, a way of recognizing what is expected, allowed, or required while also affirming a desire, willingness, or commitment to behave differently.
We have been involved in performative masking since the first stages of Covid-19. Well-publicized reports early in the pandemic of individuals not wearing masks, defying requests to wear masks, or attacking those who made these requests illustrated unusual, yet seemingly widespread, forms of mask performance. Mask mandates during pandemics are attempts to regulate personal conduct to protect the health of others; defying these regulations by refusing to wear masks heightens the danger to others. While we may question how much importance to assign to somewhat isolated examples of this behavior, these incidents are reminders of the complicated relationship between health policy, behavioral mandates, and individual actions. Viewing these two Mill Valley photographs in the context of Covid-19 leads to a more nuanced judgment of the motivations of these individuals. Flaunting unmasked faces suggests that they are not seriously concerned about the epidemic’s threat to public health or the impact of their behavior on other members of the community. Their behavior is certainly more consistent with those who have for the past three years enthusiastically brandished their non-compliance with mask mandates (including the former president).
Yet this interpretation of how people behaved a century ago is clearly shaped by our own experience with Covid-19, when mask defiance was embraced by the same political movements that falsify evidence, deny scientific findings, and reject health policies. We feel threatened by these behaviors that present a heightened risk of infection as we live our own lives: how should we respond when we research how people behaved in similar ways in a different historical context? Whereas before spring of 2020 we may have welcomed this photographic evidence of individuals defying government mandated restrictions of personal behavior, now we recognize the costs of individuals prioritizing their own wishes over the well-being of their larger community. As we prepare for the next outbreak of infectious diseases, the history of masks in 1918 as well as 2020-2023 provides lessons about the need for improved public health communication, careful consideration of effective mandates, and necessary adjustments in personal behavior.