Why is this man wearing a mask? Is he a gangster? Has he put on a disguise for Halloween? No, he's actually protecting himself from a highly contagious disease.
The year is 1918. The worst of the First World War is over and peace is just around the corner. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world are battling a form of flu known as Spanish Influenza. The illness is known for its severity and unpredictability. Anywhere from fifty to one hundred million people worldwide will lose their lives because of it by the time it runs its course at the end of 1920.
The man in the photograph is a banker who lived in Tracy. One of his descendants recently gave the Museum some of his belongings, which included photographs. There in the middle was this image.
We don't know the precise date, but according to the Stockton Daily Report the flu peaked in San Joaquin County—as in most of California—in October 1918. I suspect that the banker may have been responding to a scare that resulted after more than two hundred suspected cases of the illness cropped up in Tracy in the middle of the month. According to the newspaper, the result was "hysteria."
However, the banker doesn't appear to be rattled. Medical advice repeated often during this period stressed quarantine for and avoidance of those with the sickness, as well as protective covering of the mouth to prevent inhaling the cause of the illness.
"If you must nurse a case of influenza," advised the newspaper, "protect yourself by covering the mouth and nose with several layers of gauze or cheesecloth when approaching the patient, afterward burning them."
Was the banker nursing someone who had the flu? I don't know. To me, a more likely scenario is that his line of business brought him into contact with lots of potential disease carriers, and he recognized the need to be cautious.
By the end of October 1918, more than fifty thousand Californians, none of whom are known to have belonged to the banker's immediate family, had Spanish Influenza. Wearing this mask may have meant the difference between life and death.
This intriguing little photograph offers a glimpse into one often-overlooked dimension of San Joaquin County's past. The San Joaquin County Historical Society welcomes gifts of other material that holds the potential of enriching our understanding of that history even more.