The Influenza Masks of 1918 (20 photos)

As people worldwide adapt to living with the threat of COVID-19, and especially as the rate of new cases continues to grow in the United States, the wearing of face masks remains widely recommended, and in many places, mandatory. A century ago, an outbreak of influenza spread rapidly across the world, and killed more than 50 million—and possibly as many as 100 million—people within 15 months. The scale, impact, and nature of the disease back then are all very different from today’s pandemic—but the act of wearing a face covering to try to prevent further spread became widely adopted, then as now. While some of the masks were made of improper material, or were not used properly, or may not have been accompanied by social distancing, most provided some level of protection against transmission by blocking droplets from the nose and mouth. Below, a collection of images from a century ago, of people doing their best to keep others safe, and to stay safe themselves.

Nurses in Boston hospitals, equipped to fight influenza.

National Archives)

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