WHEN WE WEIGH how to respond to big issues, we often ponder the effect on children, who represent the future. That’s what makes this week’s “Then” photo so potent.
Standing alone, staring at the camera (and seemingly at us), is a nameless preteen, labeled only as a newsboy. Behind him is the box office of the vaudevillian Pantages Theatre, on the east side of Third Avenue near University Street. The stark sign reflects an order on Saturday, Oct. 5, 1918, by Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson to close theaters, churches and schools and cancel public gatherings to slow the flu pandemic.
We don’t know who posed the masked boy or why, and we can’t find evidence that a Seattle newspaper published the photo. But the boy’s example bears a plea: What will we do today for the sake of tomorrow?
Curiously, public policy on masks that autumn was halting. Masks were absent from initially publicized anti-flu tips, which included using handkerchiefs for sneezes and avoiding crowds. Kissing, too, was disfavored. With a straight face, The Seattle Times reported, “This practice should be stopped except in cases where it is absolutely indispensable to happiness.”
But momentum was building for masks. Their first mention in The Times (other than gas masks for overseas combat) came Oct. 10, 1918, when the Red Cross was said to be making them by the thousands. An “urgent appeal” bid women to assist in their manufacture. On the lighter side, a fashion article Oct. 18 proclaimed flu masks, especially chiffon veils, “a necessity in milady’s wardrobe.”
Finally came official action. On Oct. 24, the city ordered barbers to mask up. By Oct. 26, the order covered restaurant workers and counter clerks and, by Oct. 27, messengers, bank tellers and elevator operators. On Oct. 28, masks became mandatory on streetcars.
Noncompliance arrests began Oct. 29 (punishment: $5 bail). Stores capitalized on the cause. The Criterion millinery at Second and Seneca advertised, “You are as safe in this store as you are on the street.”
Some officials grumbled. Thomas Murphine, utility superintendent: “I know now how a mule feels when its head is shoved into a nosebag.”
Newspapers beseeched cooperation. “It is easy to be cynical and skeptical,” the Seattle Star said in a front-page banner on Oct. 30, “but knocking and scoffing aren’t going to keep down the toll of deaths.”
One day after the Nov. 11 armistice, in tune with jubilation over the Great War’s end, Seattle’s mask orders and theater closures were rescinded.
In today’s pandemic, who knows when or why masking will cease, but the century-old plea remains: What will we do for the sake of tomorrow?