Back in 1918, Cat Flu Masks Were the Rage

In 1918, Dr Woods Hutchinson had strongly-held opinions about the flu epidemic’s transmissibility. “The reason for the spread? Pig-headedness, not another thing,” he raged in in Des Moines on November 25, 1918. “We knew it was prevalent in Europe and that it would find its way here.

“The ‘flu’ germ doesn’t care a hang for your state of mind,” he noted. “After he takes up residence in your nose, he doesn’t give a blankety-blank whether you’re afraid of him or not.”

Despite this, Dr Hutchinson was anti-quarantine, instead espousing the use of masks, pointing to the West Coast, where it was mandated that masks be worn in public. Photos from that time show people out and about with the lower halves of their faces swathed in gauze. Like today’s makeshift masks, their effectiveness may have been limited. But some Americans took flu safety one step further: they masked their cats, too.

Just over the hill from me, in Dublin, California, a family of six was photographed during the Spanish Flu period. Mom holds a bouquet of flowers. Dad holds a masked cat under his arm like a loaf of bread. This family didn’t blubber about mask-wearing usurping their Constitutional rights. They cared more about keeping Fluffy safe from catching the flu…or was it keeping the family safe from Fluffy?

There was genuine fear that pets could carry Spanish influenza. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, one councilman insisted that dogs and cats were responsible for the spread of the illness, proposing that they all be killed or at the very least shaved to prevent more infections. In Phoenix, it was rumored that dogs could carry influenza. Police killed strays, while some people killed their own pets.

Although there have been no known cases of COVID-19 transmitted from cats to humans, there are several instances in which humans have transmitted the virus to cats. None of the infected cats were wearing masks.

According to Tyler Phillips of the Dublin Heritage Park & Museum, the identity of the family of six with their cat is unknown. But in another photo of masked cats from the same period, everyone–human and feline–in the photo is identified, listed on the back: “Top row, Anna Kilgore, E.K. Barr, Ms. Anna S. Shaw. Lower row, Penelope and Tommy, Mrs. Shaw and Golly.”

The photo is from the collection of Dan Eskenazi, the curator of Seattle’s Giant Shoe Museum (yes, you read that right). Eskenazi’s friend Pat Dorpat, a columnist and historian, found that four of the five women lived together in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. Since the Spanish flu pre-dated Netflix and Zoom, these ladies were probably going stir crazy. One day, weary of playing whist or euchre, they decided to get a photo of the group with cats in tow…because, hey, masked cats make for a ‘grammable moment, right? Except this was before Instagram and selfies and those detestable selfie sticks.

So, kittens, cats have been wearing masks to keep themselves safe from the scourge of human snot and spit for more than a hundred years. Uphold tradition! Stay safe!

4 thoughts on “Back in 1918, Cat Flu Masks Were the Rage

  1. Fabulous photos and lore! I’ll bet some cats even wore masks in the middle ages, but just nobody’s come forward yet with the definitive painting or journal.

    Saw a news piece today that cats can spread coronavirus to each other, but you know where they’re getting it IF they get it. So, cat masks = good.

  2. We’ve gotten ours to pose with flower wreaths on their heads, so who knows? One or more of them might be chill enough to mask up, but i am not going to try.

  3. Ain’t NO WAY I could get any of our cats to wear masks, but it’s a fun idea to think about!
    Over 100 years ago, and people are still so stupid.

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