Where in the World did Masks Come From?

For centuries, many populations have used masks for a multitude of reasons. These included cultural celebrations, attempts to ward off evil spirits, and to honour the spirits of past heroes or warriors. In many societies, ancient traditions and stories were passed through the generations using visual masked rituals. North American Iroquois medicine societies, also called the False Face Society, donned face masks carved from live trees. They believed that these masks were extremely powerful at curing ailments, but when disrespected would also cause great harm. Similar historical narratives can be found across the world.

Early medical masks donned by medical professionals during the 17th century epidemic plague, were also dubbed ‘bird masks’ due to their large beak-like appearance. During that period, people believed that disease was spread through miasma – essentially smells and odours in the air. To combat this, the beak portion of the mask was filled with herbs and spices that would prevent the dangerous odours from reaching the person’s nose and mouth. 

In the late 1800’s, Polish researchers began to test theories that respiratory moisture could contain bacteria. Their best strategy to contain this moisture was to don a face covering. While controversy grew, many doctors and surgeons began to wear masks during procedures. A study of historical photographs found that by 1923, over two-thirds of surgeons were wearing face masks during surgery in Europe and North America. At this point, the use of masks was not being widely used in any general populations.

In the fall of 1910, China recognized its first death from the new Manchurian plague virus. Dr. Wu Lien Teh quickly instituted mandatory mask wearing for all medical and burial staff. The successes identified through this real-life experiment led the way for future disease outbreaks.

Following World War I, the spread of yet another virus began - 1918 saw the rapid spread of a new influenza strain. Much like today, governments implemented laws requiring the public use of face coverings, and were met with a range of reactions, from easy adoption to protests and refusals. 

Since these large scale events, smaller outbreaks, from SARS to the H1N1 influenza outbreaks have occurred. In some cases, cultures have adopted widespread use of masks. For example, in Japan, the use of masks to prevent others from falling ill from your germs has become a manner of etiquette. 

So while we’re now at the point in the pandemic where vaccines are being distributed, and the grumblings of just being tired of wearing masks is prevalent, it is helpful to note that society’s use of masks comes and goes, as do seriously viral outbreaks. For now, masks are an essential tool that we can use to protect ourselves and others. In the near future, we will find ourselves teaching new generations about this time of masks and will add to the history books on face-coverings.

If you’d like to help others in your community, consider purchasing a mask or t-shirt. We will then donate a mask to a local food bank or shelter.