It came as a surprise to me recently when I found myself selecting some attractively designed face masks after months of being satisfied with the clinical white disposable or plain black masks available early on during the pandemic. We are now all quite used to seeing people out and about in masks and struggling to recognize or even hear people clearly has become a day to day challenge. And trust me, having a ‘foreign British’ accent does not help!
As “masking up” has become a part of my routine when I venture outside our house or my car, I began to wonder about the history and traditions of masks.
Let’s start with the medical/hygiene reasons for masks. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century doctors began to wear surgical masks simply made of gauze as the realization that bacteria-laden droplets from the surgeon’s nose and mouth could cause infection in wounds. This led to the understanding that infections like scarlet fever and diphtheria were also transmitted through droplet infection. Doctors and nurses began to learn to wear masks to protect themselves and their patients. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, mask wearing was strongly encouraged – although people poking a hole in them to smoke was a common problem!
Medical masks started to be replaced by disposable paper masks during the 1930s and were increasingly made of synthetic materials for single use by the 1960s. Unlike most traditional medical masks, these cup-shaped respirator masks fitted snugly on the face and were designed to filter incoming as well as outgoing air, and also to prevent the spread of droplets like traditional masks.
We have all heard about reusable N95 masks or respirators which mechanically provide protection against airborne particles. Originally designed for use in industry and mining, these became established for use in healthcare as a virus blocking technology. There are also medical masks for oxygen supply, which became commonplace in the 1950s based on gas masks invented during The First World War to protect soldiers from dangerous chlorine gas. There is a lot more information at www.thelancet.com
However, masks have been used for thousands of years for a variety of other reasons including protection, disguise, entertainment and in many ancient cultures, for rituals and ceremonies. The oldest mask discovered dates from 7000 B.C., but experts believe that the tradition is likely to be much older since those made of leather and wood did not survive the centuries.
In West Africa, there is an ancient tradition of wearing masks to communicate with ancestral spirits. War masks were made to scare the enemy with big eyes, painted colors and angry carved faces. Beside human faces, many African masks were made in the shapes of the animals. It is believed in some African tribes that they make it possible to communicate with animal spirits. There is an amazing local museum which really opened my eyes to the different cultures within the African continent – The Savannah African Art Museum (visit www.savannahafricanartmuseum.org)
Inuit tribes of North America used masks in shamanic rituals that represent unity between men, their ancestors and animals that men hunt. They were also used in exorcising of evil spirits from the sick. Other cultures made masks to represent ancestors and as a protection from evil. The ancient Aztecs, in Latin America, used masks to cover the faces of the dead, originally made from leather but later from copper and gold.
Masks have been used in theatres for centuries including in ancient Greek civilization and traditional Japanese drama. In medieval England, actors were often masked for mystery and miracle plays. There was one type of full-face mask in Europe which was worn when voting, so that members of the ruling body could cast their votes anonymously. Another type of mask, which was white with a long beak, was designed for plague doctors. It was supposed to help them avoid catching and spreading the dreaded Black Death.
No historical discussion of masks could be complete without covering Venice, famous for its elaborate and beautiful masks which date back to masquerade balls which began in the 1300s. During the Italian Renaissance of the 1500s, masquerade balls became especially popular in Italy during the carnival season and they gained the reputation of becoming lavish and decadent. Members of high society had their grand balls, while villagers enjoyed their own events wearing masks and costumes. As people took advantage of being anonymous behind their masks, many of these celebrations became wild and people indulged in scandalous behaviour. Masks then began to be worn in Venice outside the Carnival season as a way to escape from the rigid rules and class structures that controlled Venice society, and providing anonymity so that they could indulge in certain activities without suffering the repercussions from the government and the church. During the 18th century, laws in Venice began cracking down on the wearing of masks, which became prohibited except for special occasions. Masks in Venice became associated with intrigue, rebellion, and the underworld… connotations they still carry today. There is a lot more information at www.history.com
I will leave you with a quote by ancient Roman Philosopher, Seneca which reminds us that there are many types and meanings to wearing a mask: “No one can long hide behind a mask; the pretence soon lapses into the true character”.
God Bless America. Stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.
– ENDS –
Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her PR and marketing agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com