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“The Mask Law will be Rigidly Enforced”: Ordinances, Arrests, and Celebrations during the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic

On November 15, 1918, in the midst of the influenza epidemic, C. E. Stanford, a resident of Stockton, California, openly defied the city’s mask ordinance saying, “I have never worn an influenza mask and never will. I am a healthy man now and know full well if I put one of those things on, I will get sick. I would rather stay in jail the rest of my life than wear one.”[1]

An extended account of Stanford’s defiance provides insights into the tensions between enforcing, contesting, and evading mask ordinances. After proclaiming “that [he] had never worn a mask, was not wearing one, and would never wear one,” Stanford was “gathered in by the alert police force and forthwith confined in the county jail,” where he spent the night. The next morning, Stanford’s fifteen-year-old son came to the jail “and pleaded that his father be released, saying that he had bought masks for his father at different times but he refused to wear them.” Told that $25 bail would bring his release, “Stanford flatly refused…and the boy left the jail crying.” Later that day, however, Stanford “changed his mind.” Appearing before Justice Parker, “incidentally wearing a mask of generous proportions,” he declared his “intention of following out the letter of the law,” at which point he was released, “no formal charge having been made against him.”[2]

Stanford’s bold statement seems especially evocative in summer 2020, as the COVID-19 epidemic has forced the United States and the world to think about masks in three crucial ways: as a public health recommendation, an individual choice, and, increasingly, a legal requirement. The current situation has brought new attention to the in 1918-1919, particularly the most familiar example, San Francisco, which has been examined in historical accountsdocument collections, and popular articles. This essay explores the example set by the city of Stockton, which makes for a powerful case study because the city council, the mayor, and the city health officer implemented the mask ordinance three times across the influenza epidemic from late October 1918 to early February 1919.

This essay examines two ways in which the mask ordinance involved forms of bodily control, personal choice, and public performance: first, the arrest of individuals defying the law, and second, the public parade celebrating the war’s end on November 11, 1918.  Both arrests and celebrations demonstrate how local officials, including the government and the police, used the mask ordinance as a disciplinary tool that forced individuals to modify behaviors to meet legal requirements. Public arrests and celebrations illustrate how the mask mandate involved complicated performances. Individuals arrested for defying the mask ordinance found their transgressions displayed in public spaces, especially those whose names were published in the newspaper, regardless of whether their actions resulted from deliberate defiance or simple neglect. Photos of the November 1918 celebration show that some individuals displayed their adherence to the mandate while wearing masks, yet many others did not wear masks at the parade, which confirms that encouraging and requiring certain forms of behavior did not ensure uniformity in public performances. This historical analysis of ordinances, arrests, and celebrations in Stockton thus contributes to contemporary debates about the use of masks as forms of legal, individual, and community responses to COVID-19.

Read entire article at Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era