Anti-mask protests first took place 100 years ago - here’s why

Not everyone agreed with the mask rules put in place in some parts of America 100 years ago. (Photo: Shutterstock)Not everyone agreed with the mask rules put in place in some parts of America 100 years ago. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Not everyone agreed with the mask rules put in place in some parts of America 100 years ago. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Though face masks have now become a common sight in public life, social media and in-person protests have revealed a vocal minority who refuse to wear them.

Confronted with compulsory mask rules, implemented to slow the spread of coronavirus, some individuals have spoken out against what they view as an infringement of their personal liberty.

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Though the reasons for being anti-mask vary from issues of comfort to questions about their effectiveness, most boil down to people simply not liking the government putting limits on their behaviour, or a feeling that they’re being controlled. 

As a public health measure designed to benefit society as a whole, the backlash against mandatory mask-wearing has led some to wonder whether today’s society is more selfish than that of previous generations, with individuals unwilling to make a small sacrifice for the greater good. 

Yet, in spite of some popular myths, history tells us that the behaviour of those against the mandatory wearing of face coverings and protest groups is nothing new. People have long rebelled against governments enforcing blanket safety measures on the population. 

Spanish Flu and anti-maskers 

This isn’t the first time rules on mask-wearing have been introduced to fight disease. Over 100 years ago, when Spanish Flu tore its way through the global population, some governments mandated mask-wearing to slow the spread of disease.

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Though hygiene and safety measures were patchy in the UK, some western US states - such as California - realised that mask-wearing could be a useful tool in the fight against Spanish Flu.

In 1918, for instance, officials in San Francisco ordered the public to don face masks in public, alongside closing theatres, cinemas and restaurants. And while most people complied with the measure, others grumbled about masks, saying they were bad for business, uncomfortable or ineffective. Others poked holes in their masks to smoke, thus rendering them useless. 

Some felt so strongly about mask-wearing that they actually protested the measure - with an ‘Anti-Mask League’ forming in San Francisco in 1919. The group’s aim was to see the mask-wearing edict repealed. 

Protests took place, with 110 people arrested in San Francisco on one occasion for “disturbing the peace” with their refusal to wear masks. 

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In one particularly violent incident, a man was actually shot by a health official after he stood on a street corner, maskless, attempting to convince others to rid themselves of their masks. 

Punishments for a refusal to comply ranged from fines and having your name printed in the paper to prison sentences. 

And while refusal to wear a mask probably won’t land you in prison today, there was another way in which the world 100 years ago echoed today’s - those in power received different treatment from members of the public. 

Several supervisors, a congressman, the city’s health officer and even the mayor were all photographed in San Francisco without masks at a boxing match, but instead of prison time, they simply received fines. 

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In spite of some non-compliance, most people did wear masks as instructed, and it’s believed that areas which enforced this more strictly fared better in the face of Spanish Flu. 

Blitz blackout resistance

One rebellious comparison closer to home relates to the blackout rules enforced as a measure against bombings in Britain during WWII. 

One of the most significant public safety measures introduced during the war, the blackout required all citizens to keep their homes completely darkened at night to obscure the vision of bombers overhead. As with mask wearing today, the measure required all citizens to participate in order to achieve maximum effectiveness. 

Yet, while the popular myth about ‘Blitz spirit’ has encouraged the idea that all Britons pulled together unanimously in the fight at home, the 925,000 fines issued for lighting violations by the end of the war tell a different story. 

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According to historians, blackout rules were bemoaned by a section of the public, some of whom felt that blackout was taking a toll on their mental health. 

In 1944, the government’s Home Intelligence division noted, “A number, particularly war workers, feel the blackout is responsible for much depression and illness; some think it could be lifted in their areas; others would welcome at least more star-lighting [the name given to a measure allowing pin prick street lighting].”

Crime was also a concern for many, as criminals took advantage of darkened streets to rob and assault members of the public. 

Air Raid Wardens were dispatched onto UK streets in order to enforce blackout, and levy fines on any households caught not complying. It’s reported that the call of “Put that light out” was commonly heard on the streets during air raids.

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While some may have flouted rules deliberately, many also broke them by accident, with light sometimes slipping through cracks in blackout curtains and blinds. 

The majority of the public, however, did comply with the blackout, with academics suggesting that clear public messaging was partly to thank for this. It’s also believed that compliance may have increased once bombs began to actually drop on UK cities, with members of the public experiencing firsthand the threat they faced through non-compliance. 

Compliance with face masks today

According to a Royal Society report, Britain’s current low compliance rate on mask-wearing - estimated to be between 20 and 25 per cent - is due to a variety of factors, including “public understanding of virus transmission, risk perception, trust, altruism, [and] individual traits.”

Academics and psychologists also believe that mixed public messaging is partly to blame for a low uptake in mask wearing.

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Writing in History and Policy, Henry Irving, Rosemary Cresswell, Barry Doyle, Shane Ewen , Mark Roodhouse, Charlotte Tomlinson and Marc Wiggam said that the blackout’s success in wartime Britain “rested on the clear communication of the restrictions, fairness in their application, and a measure of common sense.”

If messaging is strong enough, say Henry Irving and Marc Wiggam, history tells us that the habit may even stick around beyond the end of the pandemic.

In the case of the blackout, a survey in late 1944 - when the threat of bombing had diminished - found that most people had clung onto blackout habits, despite restrictions loosening slightly. It concluded that, “the general feeling is that the war isn’t over yet,” and people had become used to the measures.

The academics writing in History and Policy believe that, as in wartime, “the government needs to communicate clearly the link between people’s behaviour and the national interest, using sanctions consistently” in order for public health measures - such as social distancing and mask wearing - to be effective.

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