Wearing Masks and Doing History

Studio portrait of Alix Hui

By Alexandra Hui, associate professor, Department of History

Masks, most generally, and across time and place have been made and used by humans toward several different uses. Sometimes these uses are ritualistic or representative. Other times they are, to use a very Western framing, more direct and mechanistic. Anthropologists offer broad categories of mask use, ranging from religious use to therapeutic to theatrical. We can, of course, think of lots of examples in every culture, as well as examples that function across multiple purposes. If we are being very broad in all our uses of the words, I think we can think of masks as objects that are made and used by humans to protect the body of the individual or community and/or administer to the body of the individual or community.

Now let’s think about masks like historians. Let’s treat masks as primary sources, as pieces of evidence from the past. What can masks tell us about the past? For one, masks offer insights into different concepts and experiences of disease in the past. We can reverse-engineer, so to speak, the design of the mask for clues about how people in the past understood disease and medicine.

For example, the currently ubiquitous image of the medieval plague doctor. While debatable how common this costume was in the middle ages, there are clear references in texts and images from the middle of the 17th Century onwards the “plague doctor” covering themselves with leather or waxed fabric, crystal glasses, and beaked mask filled with scented substances “to divert the bad air.”

In this period in Europe, the general understanding of disease had recently shifted from a humoral one — that disease reflected the imbalance of an individual’s four humors — to a belief that disease was caused and transmitted by miasma. That is, “poisoned air” facilitated the spread of disease between individuals. The public health measures developed — quarantines for the sick and lazarettos for suspected cases — as well as the features of the plague doctor mask reflect this new understanding of miasmatic transmission.

We might think also about what this specific mask tells us about the experience of the disease at this time. The mask tells us of the wearer’s fear of air-based infection from the community. We can imagine infected individuals being separated from or abandoned by their families, their final human encounters only barely so. Consider the torment of being attended to by someone draped in such a terrifying garment. The plague doctor mask helps us think through all of these scenarios.

Or another example: the masks created by surgeons as new germ theories of disease prompted new approaches to surgery. In the 1860s, surgeons had been working to eliminate germs in the surgical theater by washing wounds with antiseptic substances. By the 1880s, they pivoted to preventing germs from entering wounds at all. Hands, instruments, the breath of operating staff bent over the wound had to be diligently rendered aseptic. By the 1930s most surgeons and attendants operated while wearing masks. The ubiquitous use of masks in the operating room reflects both a belief in the germ-theory of disease and an understanding that masks protected the patient. These simple cloth face coverings used to protect the patient were then distributed to everybody during the plague and influenza pandemics during the first decades of the 20th century. And so the mask took on a new role of protecting the wearer from infection.

When we think of masks as clues to the past we also can  use them to identify not just new ideas (like concepts of disease) but how people understood entirely new phenomena. For example, East German civil defense posters on how to fashion a gas mask tell us that chemical attacks on civilians had become a significant enough threat in the 1980s that the city of Berlin felt it necessary to issue these instructions. Or the imagery circulated in western media of masked citizens of Asian cities choking on air-pollution can be unpacked for broader narratives about modernity and globalization.

Many historians are interested in material culture, following objects over time and space

Thinking about the material culture of masks prompts us to think about where they come from. Who is making them? At the beginning of the pandemic in the US, sourcing medical grade masks exposed weaknesses in the supply chain and trade agreements. On one end of the consumer spectrum, we saw high fashioning itself for those who can afford it. On the other end, the making of home-made cloth masks for schoolchildren, hospital patients, and front-line workers, has been executed overwhelmingly by an army of women with sewing machines. Some were paid for their labor or reimbursed for materials used. Most were not. The material culture of masks and mask-making can tell us quite a bit about labor, gender and race.

Now, our curiosity about the past is inherently informed by the present. We look to the past from the present. So we should also ask: how can masks of the past help us think about this moment?

Even with just this handful of examples, I think it’s clear that we can use masks of the past to track changing ideas, values and social behaviors. Put slightly differently, the mask as a historical object shows us the historicity of ideas, values and behaviors — these things change over time in concert with the development of new technologies. So too, do conceptions of community, which as we learned by looking at masks of the past with the analytical eye of a historian, can be read through masks themselves.

This helps us wrap our heads around this moment in this place. Using the same analytical lens we directed at the past, we can draw some conclusions from the current U.S.-specific debate about mask-wearing. Certainly, significant cultural anxieties currently swirl around the authority of centralized government and role of the scientific community in shaping government policy. The roiling discussions about social responsibility of mask-wearing have dovetailed with revelations about the ways in which COVID-19, like economic calamity and police violence, affects some individuals more than others. What is the responsibility of the individual to help prevent the spread of these compounding catastrophes in their community? There are cultural contours to public understanding of the efficacy of masks that then, in turn, shape efficacy.

To sum up and bring home the public health message: recognizing the historicity of masks and their meanings gives us the power to potentially change their meaning and use in the present. Wear your mask and make history.


Further reading:

Warwick Anderson, “Unmasked: Face-Work in a Pandemic,” Arena

Erika Briesacher, “Makers of Living, Breathing History: The Material Culture of Homemade Facemasks,” Nursing Clio Blog

Christos Lynteris, “Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment,” Medical Anthropology (2018) https://core.ac.uk/reader/161932284

Bruno Strasser and Thomas Schlich, “A history of the medical mask and the rise of throwaway culture,” The Lancet

“The Plague Doctor Mask: Myth or Reality?” Epidemic Histories, https://www.epidemic-histories.com/new-page-1?fbclid=IwAR39nzX8JeEY_I6LGLa8At_8R3qzPnLDqmxQwdKXiu_JaDrBZX7pCcF7S8c