[Spanish Flu] Candid Photograph of Students Wearing Masks, inscribed “The Flew,” University of Missouri, 1918
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Candid 1918 photograph of five students at the University of Missouri wearing masks during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Mounted to an unevenly clipped album leaf, with "The Flew" handwritten in white ink along the upper margin of the mount. Image collage to recto of mount. In very fine condition. Photograph measures 4.25 x 2.5 inches (11 x 6.8 cm.).
The devastation wrought by the Spanish Flu, known now as the H1N1 virus, resulted in nearly 50 million deaths across the globe; a number equivalent to roughly 225-455 million people today. As the virus pervaded the American population, The Red Cross spread the slogan "wear a mask, save your life," and nurses began to make them for the public. Even songs were written about mask wearing, one notable tune featured the lyrics: "Obey the laws, and wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws." There were only a small number of specialist mask manufacturers completely unable to meet the surge in demand as the virus spread. Home-made solutions became abundant, with the majority of masks fashioned from two layers of gauze. In parts of America, churches, community groups, and Red Cross chapters came together, acquiring as much gauze as they could find, and held mass mask-making sessions. The notion of 'mask-wearing' stirred controversy and debate around the overall effectiveness and protection masks could offer. 'Mask politics' erupted nationwide; with a growing death toll and desperate attempts to maintain the spread of the Spanish Flu, those who failed to wear a mask in public were threatened with fines or imprisonment in areas where mask wearing was required by law.