A short history on facemasks

A short history on facemasks

Mon, Aug 24, 20 Arrow Uniforms

The current COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of life as we know it. In New Zealand, we're lining up 2 meters away at supermarkets and pharmacies and ordering in - we're lucky to have freedom under the current Level 2 restrictions (with much love and support for Auckland, who is under lockdown for the benefit of all of us). With recent recommendations from the Ministry of Health to wear a facemask in public places, seeing someone below the eyes might become more and more infrequent. (Looking for facemasks? Browse our range here).

Though most of us probably have not thought much about facemasks until the past few months, the use of masks to promote community health goes back to Medieval times. Read our short retrospective about how the use of  medical masks have changed from the 19th century to now, one of the most unique years in modern history - 2020. 



The Middle Ages are perhaps most remembered for the Black Plague that claimed the lives of anywhere from one-third to one-fourth of the population of Europe. The Plague brings to mind images of the bird-like Plague Doctor masks. Believing that bad air or "miasmas" caused the infection, doctors treating plague victims would wear a leather head covering with a long, pointed beak filled with sweet-smelling herbs to keep out the bad airs. In recent years, historians have come to doubt whether such masks were actually worn by physicians during the plague--the only two supposed specimens to survive are now believed to be forgeries from a later date. Nevertheless, images of the bird-like masks were common on stages and in art throughout the Renaissance.

19th Century: Germs are real


Move over miasmas - germ theory was a turning point both scientifically and socially. The theory of germs --the idea that there are tiny creatures that make us sick when they enter our bodies--came into being in the 1800s. The idea of covering one's face to protect from these "germs" started to gain traction when scientists examining dust specks under microscopes discovered bacteria on the dust particles. As early as 1878, a New York physician named A.J. Jessup proposed face coverings to limit the spread of disease during epidemics. This was around the same time that Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic surgery into hospitals, vastly improving post-operation patient mortality rates. A little later in the century, research began to focus on the idea that the respiratory system was responsible for transmitting contagion, and Carl Freidrich Flugge published the first study promoting the use of facemasks in the operating theatre in 1897. In the 19th century,  high society women began wearing lacy veils over their faces to protect themselves from breathing in dust.

Outbreaks at the Turn of the 20th Century


The use of facemasks during surgery remained uncommon in the early 1900s. In 1905, a Chicago physician named Alice Hamilton also recommended that surgeons adopt the practice after conducting experiments measuring the amount of bacteria produced by scarlet fever patients versus healthy doctors and nurses. Her work was inspired by a medical student who had noticed the respiratory droplets coming from his professor's mouth when the light hit them at the right angle. In 1910, there was an outbreak of pneumonic plague in Manchuria. A Cambridge-educated Chinese doctor designed masks for both medical personnel and the general public to control the spread. During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, doctors began routinely wearing face masks when with patients. Many cities also made them mandatory in public. Mask measures were met with significant controversy, but in some cities, like San Francisco, mandatory masking was led to a noticeable decline in mortality. In the 1920s, masks became standard protocol in medical settings.

Post-WWII: The Total Disposable System

Although most masks were initially made from cloth and intended to be reused, technology advancements meant that by the 1930s, disposable paper masks were already available and by the 1960s, masks were increasingly made of synthetic materials and designed for single use. This decade also saw the creation of the cup-shaped respirator masks (what you might now recognize as an n95) that could filter incoming air as well as outgoing and protect the wearer. The push for single-use masks in the 1960s was part of a larger movement for a "total disposable system" where everything from needles and syringes to trays would be used once and thrown out to ensure sterility. Face coverings outside of medical settings were also common after the second war: rising pollution levels lead to Londoners adopting smog masks, which then became popular in developing nations like India and China in the late 20th and early 21st century. Even before covid-19 quite literally went viral, mask-wearing in public was a normal part of life, especially during cold and flu season.

Covid-19 and the Facemask


In the current coronavirus pandemic, community use of masks as a public health measure has taken center stage. Medical professionals around the globe stress that universal masking in public spaces is the best tool we have to contain the virus and save lives. While there is still much we are learning about COVID-19, the one thing that is clear is that wearing a mask is the responsible thing to do for your friends, family, and community. Our social norms are changing out of necessity. A fashion statement in recent years, facemasks are now seen again as a necessary utility. Arrow Uniforms is selling reusable facemasks here.