People called them “flu fences” and “chin sails.” Gala attendees fastened theirs with gaudy earrings. Smokers cut flaps in them, and movie houses gave them away with tickets.

During the influenza pandemic of 1918, officials often advised Americans to wear face masks in public. Doctors believed that masks could help prevent “spray infections,” according to historian John M. Barry in his book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” Enforced by local health officials, the facial coverings grew routine. Often, Red Cross chapters fashioned and distributed the masks that were “seen everywhere and would become a symbol of the epidemic,” Barry wrote. Americans used the masks as a method of retaining some normalcy during a pandemic that killed at least 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide. It was the only aspect of the catastrophe discussed with any humor.

If directed to wear a mask, homemade worked. “Take a piece of gauze the size of a sheet of typewriter paper,” said instructions in the Atlanta Constitution“Fold it twice, so that it will fit an envelope. Then attach strings to the four corners and tie these strings at the back of the neck. The mask covers the nose and mouth, so that the wearer breathes through four thicknesses of gauze. A clean handkerchief is just as good as the gauze.”

Now, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is debating whether it should recommend that people wear masks when they go outside. In 1918, with a different virus, it didn’t help.

Iowa’s State Board of Health reminded those sewing masks to add some “colored worsted [a type of yarn] or tape” on the part of the mask that would be the outside. The upper margin was to be drawn tightly over the bridge of the nose, right under the eyes. Masks were to be washed after each use, not touched once they were tied on, and boiled for five minutes before wearing again.

Two volunteers carry a patient at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington during the flu pandemic of 1918. (Library of Congress)

The masks disrupted lives in unexpected ways. A San Francisco fisherman said “bandits” in flu masks robbed him. A woman taking a train from Chicago to Pasadena, Calif., reportedly experienced a break from sanity when she disembarked and “beheld the masked city,” according to a story in the Los Angeles Times. And columnist Fay King bemoaned the new mustaches. Men who formerly “couldn’t bear to have [a] hairy lip classed with a tooth brush” were growing facial hair, now hidden behind the masks.

On Nov. 1, 1918, Eugene C. Caley became the first man in Oakland, Calif., to be arrested for not wearing a mask. He was released on bail, although similar scofflaws in San Francisco had been sentenced to up to 10 days in jail. (Departments donated revenue from fines to the Red Cross.)

“This is only the beginning,” said the chief of police, according to the Oakland Tribune. “We are going to enforce this mask ordinance if we have to pack the city jail with people. This epidemic is too serious to be taken as a joke, and men arrested … will find that it’s no laughing matter when they face the police judges.”

Some complained that the masks were “unsanitary,” and bureaucratic confusion could stymie whether they were worn. In Alexandria, La., a sanitation leader for the Army ordered flu masks be worn. But waiters removed theirs because their local public health official said that the masks prevented “free breathing,” according to the Town Talk.

Tobacco-chewing workers were “kept busy putting the masks on and off” to spit, reported the Fort Wayne Sentinel, while smokers became creative. One cigar vendor made doors in masks so that her wares could be enjoyed, reported the Oakland Tribune. One man fashioned a cigarette holder from a long rubber tube, and another simply shoved his mask up over his forehead.

“I am 75 years old and have been living in this state 67 years,” a man named E. Piercy told a police court, according to Los Angeles’ Evening Express. “I must have my smoke, and I’m not going to give up my tobacco for a cheesecloth muzzle!”

Touting their ability to distract an anxiety-ridden public, movie houses remained open, as long as viewers wore masks. At the Riley in Greenfield, Ind., if you had your own mask, admission was 6 and 11 cents. If you needed the theater to provide one, admission went up to 10 or 15 cents.

The Riley, its advertisement said, had been disinfected. So had the Coliseum dance hall in Rock Island, Ill. “Aseptic spray, etc.,” said its advertisement, which reminded dancers to bring their masks. “Don’t forget the big Duck and Goose call this Saturday.”

Through the attempts to make wearing masks seem normal, positioned at stores alongside everyday things such as tobacco, mustache grooming and dancing, the grim truth persisted.

“The masks worn by millions were useless as designed and could not prevent influenza,” Barry wrote. “Only preventing exposure to the virus could.”