Face Masks Throughout History – The Plague to Covid-19General
Face masks have become an integral part of our everyday lives, so much so that we now feel naked without them. I find it bizarre that there are people I see almost every single day and still don’t know what they look like. Wearing face masks has drastically impacted our day-to-day interactions. People have had to learn to be more expressive with their eyes, speak clearly and greet people with a wave rather than a smile. I personally do not have expressive eyes and still forget that people can’t tell I’m smiling at them. So God knows what goes through their minds at that moment.
Face masks have been used in society since ancient times, whether it’s for rituals, punishment or – what’s currently relevant – medical use. Face masks are still mandatory in most cities across Canada, and whether it’s for personal preference or mandatory health orders, it looks like they’ll be sticking around for a while. I want to cover the history of medical masks because I don’t think they will disappear anytime soon.
The Plague Doctor Face Masks
Many of us have seen photos from the Plague era of “Plague Doctors” wearing bird-like masks and long cloaks to treat the sick. These doctors were commonly low-grade doctors – if they were even qualified, at all. Not many doctors were willing to go into the homes of plague victims, for fear of their own safety, so anyone willing was much appreciated.
At the time, people found the outfit to be scary and performative rather than practical. Although, according to The Last Podcast on the Left (2021), the outfit had several purposes. The tall hat was to inform passersby that they were a doctor, and the cloak ensured the wearer didn’t come in contact with the ill. At the time, the plague was thought to be contracted by bad smells and human contact. Hence the bird-like appearance of these masks, allowing the wearer to place herbs to avoid smelling any foul odours.
Despite the plague lasting from the 1300s to the 1700s, Plague Doctors didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s (The Travel, 2020). The plague was initially thought to be spread by bad odours, prompting doctors to put various herbs in the beaks of their masks to fight off the disease. The Plague Doctors outfits represent the first inkling that disease was spread by human contact, not acts of God. As we now know, it was more likely to be contracted from fleas that infested the countless rats that commonly ran rampant (Deyner’s Notes, 2020).
Although the plague lasted approximately from the 1300s to the 1700s, Plague Doctors didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s (The Travel, 2020). The plague was initially thought to be spread by bad odours, prompting doctors to put various herbs in the beaks of their masks to fight off the disease. The Plague Doctors outfits represent the first inkling that disease was spread by human contact, not acts of God. As we now know, it was more likely to be contracted from fleas that infested the countless rats that commonly ran rampant (Deyner’s Notes, 2020).
The Spanish Flu: The Era of Face Mask Prototypes
The Spanish Flu of 1918 coincided with the first World War, which contributed to the rapid spread of the flu, due to the troops being confined to crowded spaces and constant travel. The general public was encouraged to create their own modified face masks at home. This lead to the circulation of multiple prototypes and rapid advancements in the design of face masks (History, 2021).
The public guidelines were similar to the ones implemented for Covid-19. Officials recommended social distancing, face coverings, washing your hands and closing schools. They also reminded people not to spit, which I assume isn’t as relevant today (I hope). Education regarding coughing and sneezing in public became widespread and social distancing was heavily encouraged. The papers called out people who refused to wear masks, calling them “Mask Slackers”. This was referring to people who didn’t contribute to the war efforts (History, 2021).
The early 1800s brought rapid advancements for medical face masks. Robert Brown, A Scottish scientist, studied the benefits of wearing masks to protect against airborne particles. From the 1600s to the early 1900s, medical professionals in China wore masks made up of layers of gauze (Deyner’s Notes, 2020). The Spanish Flu of 1918 urged the general public to create homemade masks, resulting in multiple modifications of facemasks in a short period.
Face Masks in 2021
During the Covid-19 pandemic, masks have become mandatory for most public settings across Canada. Today, disposable masks are designed to fit as comfortably to the user’s face as possible. The most frequently worn designs are KN95 masks, surgical masks or cloth masks. Although mask design still has a long way to go, it is a huge improvement from early versions from the early 1900s. Masks continue to evolve and have become a form of expression for many people. Despite restrictions beginning to lift, many people throughout Canada have chosen to continue wearing masks out of personal preference. There is also a concern for the vulnerable people in our society, that are immune-compromised or too young to receive the vaccine.
Similar to the Spanish flu, there is a divide concerning wearing masks. People have argued that they’re ineffective, uncomfortable or an infringement on our rights. My take on this debate is: yes, masks alone are not 100% effective. However, it’s proven that wearing a mask, social distancing, and proper sanitation can drastically prevent the spread of this virus.
We live in a society with countless rules and regulations that are in place to protect everyone. Living in a society means you have responsibilities, you pay taxes, you don’t drive intoxicated and you pay for the items you get from the store. You have a right to be free and feel safe, but so does everybody else. If you are in a position to protect the vulnerable people in society, and all it takes is wearing a mask, why wouldn’t you?
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