By Andrea Woods, Reference Librarian
A recent reference inquiry had us looking through our archived early San Francisco materials to research the city’s mask laws of 1918 and 1919 during the Spanish flu. San Francisco was the first city in the country to enact a mask-wearing requirement in October of 1918, and much has been written online about it, but our patron had been unable to locate the text of the law and turned to us for help.
Our collection of historical San Francisco codes and ordinances includes many volumes that have subsequent amendments “tipped in,” where new laws are physically pasted onto pages of the existing bound volume. Our copy ofGeneral Ordinances of the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco, December 1, 1915, has both of the mask ordinances tipped in, from October 1918 and January 1919:
Another resource in our collection is the Journal of Proceedings of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which reveals the debate and discussion surrounding the mask laws and many historical details of what the city and its government officials were facing at the time. It contains not only the text of the mask ordinances, but also statements from the supervisors and Mayor Rolph, the Board of Health reports and recommendations, and public debate and opposition. Our print collection of the Journal of Proceedings covers 1906 to 1989, and some volumes have been also digitized for the Internet Archive website.
San Francisco’s mask law was in effect twice, first from October 25, 1918 until November 28, 1918 and then again from January 17, 1919 to February 1, 1919. A comparison of the debate in the Journal of Proceedings in the lead up to the enactment of each ordinance shows just how much pressure was on city officials by a public that was overall quite opposed to the law. (Another attempt at enacting a mask requirement was voted down on December 19, 1918 by vote of 7 to 9, after the Public Health Committee of the Board of Supervisors urged that any mask law should be imposed by State officials instead of by the City government—a likely indication of an attempt to deflect responsibility for an unpopular measure.) While both the October 1918 and January 1919 ordinances passed with almost the same supervisors in favor and against, several supervisors who voted in favor of reenactment in January also submitted a statement in the “explanation of the vote” section of the Journal of Proceedings, which was not present in the earlier October 1918 proceedings, to indicate their skepticism of masks’ efficacy but willingness nonetheless to proceed with the Board of Health’s advisement to reenact the law. Also during the January 1919 debate, more members of the public appeared to speak against the law, including the vocal Anti-Mask League, which quickly submitted a petition to repeal the new law on January 27, 1919. Finally, the mask law was reenacted at the same time that the Board of Supervisors issued Resolution No. 16421, which urged the State Board of Health to take action on masks at the state level.
One last detail in the Journal of Proceedings hints at the source of much of the public’s displeasure with the mask ordinance. Before final passage of the reenactment on January 17, 1919, in light of the public being 99.5% opposed to the law, Supervisor Nelson proposed an (unsuccessful) amendment that would remove the penalty clause of the law. Section 3 of the ordinance stated that the penalty that could be imposed for failing to wear a mask ranged from a fine of $5 to $100 to imprisonment for 10 days, or both. The San Francisco Examiner from October 29, 1918 describes “Mask Slackers” being slapped with fines and, for some offenders, stiff jail sentences of 30 days. That day’s issue also reports that three people were shot when an Inspector from the Health Department fired his gun at a man who attacked him for enforcing the law.
The Journal of Proceedings is a remarkable record of the times and it also shows how to some extent the past mirrors our present circumstances. We’re reminded that political opinions of the day were just as passionate and rigid as they are now. When Mayor Rolph observed the large number of members of the public who had gathered to speak in opposition to the reenactment of the mask law at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting on January 10, 1919, he began proceedings by saying: “In all fairness, I deem it but right to say that from my knowledge of the situation I know that if arguments take place here until midnight it will not change one vote in this Board. There are enough votes here to pass the masking ordinance to print. I am saying this in order to prevent a lot of useless discussion.” As described above, we see elected leaders making difficult, unpopular decisions and facing public criticism for them. And in yet another reminder of how the past can resemble the present, we learn that Supervisor Power, although he had been excused from the Board of Supervisors meeting on January 17, 1919 to travel to Stockton to greet the “Grizzlies” (the One Hundred and Forty-third Artillery) returning home from the war, was able to attend after all and arrived late, having missed his train to Stockton that morning because of a Municipal Railway delay at Second and Market Streets.