Making Masks During The 1918 Flu Pandemic

I’m still here! I’ve just been extremely busy.

A few months ago, when I had to sew face masks for my family, I made several bad prototypes before finally finding a helpful JoAnn’s Fabrics video tutorial. I rummaged through my fabric scraps, searching for the recommended 100% cotton fabrics. And because I have an embarrassing amount of unfinished sewing projects tucked away, I already possessed soft ¼ inch elastic, so I didn’t have to sew cloth strings.    

I had previously posted an article about the flu pandemic of the late 1910s. Today, I searched more specifically on “influenza” and “masks” in that timeframe. If you’ve struggled with sewing a mask, I hope you appreciate these small finds.

“Red Cross workers of Boston, Massachusetts, removing bundles of masks for American Soldiers from table where other women are busily engaged in making them.” National Archives Identifier: 45499363

From “Comments On Influenza” in Virginia Medical Monthly, 1918.

The Face Mask: With terrible emphasis the public, as well as the profession, has had its attention drawn during this epidemic to the rise of the mask for the protection of people diseases. The surgeons while operating have used the mask during recent years to prevent disease germs from entering wounds of the patients from the mouth and nose of the surgeons. During this terrible epidemic, the proper use of a properly made mask undoubtedly protected many people from “taking” the “Spanish Flu.”

The use of the mask should become more general. At certain periods of the year, when epidemic diseases entering the body through respiratory route appear, it should be used especially by children in schools, on cars, or in moving picture theatres, etc. Of course, the mask should be properly made should be worn on same side, and should be sterilized before being again used. Measles, whooping-cough, meningitis, infantile paralysis, scarlet fever, influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis–maybe, at least in part, held in check through this precaution. Remembering that the micro-organisms which make possible these diseases implanted and propagated in bodies of the people and disseminated therefrom to infect the respiratory passage of other bodies, every means that tends to obstruct and prevent this transplantation should be used thoroughly.

In an interesting article (Jour A. M. A.  October 12th, 1918 page 1216), Doust and Lyon reported experiments with face masks and reached the following conclusions:

1 During ordinary or loud speech, infected material from the mouth is rarely projected to a distance of four feet, and usually less. A four-foot danger zone exists about the patient under these conditions.

2 During coughing, infected material from the mouth may be projected at least ten feet. The danger zone about a coughing patient has then, a minimum radius of ten feet.

3 Masks of coarse or medium gauze of from two to ten layers do not prevent the projection of infected material from the mouth during coughing. Such masks are worthless, therefore, in preventing the dissemination of respiratory infections.

4 A three layer buttercloth mask is efficient in preventing the projection of infectious material from the mouth during speaking or coughing. It is a suitable mask, therefore, be worn in connection with respiratory disease.

Then buttercloth, six by eight inches, hemmed on the edges (with four tapes), makes the best cloth mask.

from Influenza, a Study of Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic, by Wilfred H. Kellogg. Issue 31 of Special Bulletin, California State Board of Health. 1919.

From “Home Treatment of Influenza” in Good Health, 1919.

While it is hoped that there will not be a repetition of the influenza epidemic which occurred last year, yet we should be very foolish to be caught as unprepared before. Even though the majority our nurses have returned from the war, there is still a great shortage in the country, and it is highly important that every woman should prepare herself to do the things in case the disease should again invade her home or neighborhood.

That much can be done by the woman who has only a short course in nursing, is illustrated by what a group young women did last winter when influenza came to Battle Creek. There was, of course, a very great shortage nurses and the calls coming to the outpatient department of the Battle Creek Sanitarium were so numerous and urgent that those in charge of the work were all distracted because of their inability to supply the demand for assistance. The young women of the Battle Creek Sanitarium School of Home Economics were therefore invited to co-operate with the Dispensary by going into the various homes of the sick and rendering such assistance.

The first point of instruction was that of prevention. Each girl was supplied with a face mask and instructed to wear it every moment that she was in the house where the influenza prevailed. The mask consisted of three thicknesses of heavy cheesecloth, commonly known as buttercloth, the mask being large enough to cover both the nose and the mouth. This was six by eight inches in size and was fastened by strings coming from the four corners. In order to make the mask a little more comfortable, three or four small tucks were placed at each end thus a little fullness over the nose.

They were instructed always to disinfect their hands and face with a solution of bichloride of mercury, tablets of which can be obtained at any drugstore, or a weak solution of carbolic acid. In removing the mask they were to fold it with the side worn next to the face on the inside of the fold, and to lay it on a clean surface, made so by washing with a disinfectant–the mask to be replaced before again entering the room of the patient–care being taken to put the same side toward the face as had previously been worn or, a better plan still, to put a clean disinfected mask on each time. It is believed that the careful wearing of the mask was responsible for so few cases of influenza resulting among the students. Only three out of about seventy-five who were assisting in homes where the influenza prevailed, contracted the disease. One of them admitted that she had been careless in the wearing of her mask.

“Taking food to the family all down with the “Flu” at Charlotte, North Carolina. They found the mother had just died.” National Archives Identifier:  533586