Miscellaneous protective masks until 1900 – and how they are intertwined.
Plague masks are protective masks, but not every protective mask is a plague mask. This department shows masks and hoods for protection of the respiratory organs and eyes that have been used by artisans, miners and firemen, as well as masks for everyday use – and we learn how medics were late adopters instead of innovators.
Contagion was not the first threat that made people cover their nose and mouth. Potters, millers, woodworkers, stone cutters and Native Americans have worn dustmasks from time immemorial. The modern era brought masks against bad air for sewage workers and gravediggers. Arsenic workers wore anti-arsenic masks, workers in lead-white factories covered their faces with all kinds of devices. Similarly, fire-gilders, mirror makers and hatters armed themselves against mercury vapors with a variety of apparatuses.
If they did. Often workers would only use some sort of covering when there was an acute danger of asphyxiation. Masks were found inconvenient or annoying and even the severest afflictions were thought of as ‘part of the job’. As Charles Dickens recorded, needle makers in the town of Redditch, who inhaled buckets full of stone grit on a daily basis, insisted on their right to die early. And they did.
But others showed more concern, among them factory owners, inventors, firemen and doctors. The protective masks* they created, can be divided roughly into two types. One where the air was filtered before inhaling, the second supplied fresh air to the wearer through a tube: a subdivision can be made between air from a place outside, or from a reservoir carried by the professional.
* We define a protective mask as any sort of facepiece with the purpose to protect the wearer against whatever physical danger. From the size of a molecule, as in a gas or a virus, to about the size of a baseball. For the sake of comprehension we will narrow our selection down to the protection of the respiratory tract, mouth and eyes; except when it protects solely the eyes, in which case we would call it goggles.
Diving for masks
Even before disposables came into fashion, masks were disposed of as a matter of course. And where we don’t have to worry about the recognizability (and durability) of the present protectors, archaeologists won’t think of a FFP2 in the first place when they dig up a sponge, because they were used for everything. They are light and cheap, they hold moisture well and they are plenty. But sponges grow in the sea, and to harvest them an underwater-mask is needed.
Early underwater-masks were closely connected with the hoods and helmets of miners and firefighters. The thought was, that if it functions where there’s no air at all, it might as well function in circumstances where the air is harmful, which was notoriously so underground and in smoky rooms. An example of how these were intertwined, is shown by Charles Deane, who invented a smoke helmet with garment attached for firefighters in 1823, to convert it into a divers’ equipment with his brother a few years later. And after Colonel Gustave Paulin launched his smoke-proof ‘Blouse Paulin’ for firemen (1837), he applied the same one-hose system to an underwater suit.
Along the same line of thinking, C.-Antoine Brizé-Fradin advertised his diving apparatus as applicable in mines and sewers, as well as for approaching persons suffering from the plague and the burial of its victims.
Working in the mine has always been one of the world’s most lethal jobs. The great and many risks were treated by Georgius Agricola in his groundbreaking (sorry) treatise on mining and metallurgy De re metallica (1556):
‘While the heated veins and rock are giving forth a foetid vapour and the shafts or tunnels are emitting fumes, the miners and other workmen do not go down in the mines lest the stench affect their health or actually kill them.’
And vapors were not the only danger, as Agricola points out:
‘If the dust has corrosive qualities, it eats away the lungs, and implants consumption in the body (…) Therefore, for their digging they should make for themselves not only boots of rawhide, but gloves long enough to reach to the elbow, and they should fasten loose veils over their faces; the dust will then neither be drawn through these into their windpipes and lungs, nor will it fly into their eyes. Not dissimilarly, among the Romans the makers of vermilion took precautions against breathing its fatal dust.’
A scientist who engaged in resolving such perils, was Alexander von Humboldt. His self-contained breathing apparatus was a complete system, with a mouthpiece of brass that was connected by a tube to a bag of varnished silk filled with atmospheric air. To prevent the users from inhaling the same air that they had just breathed out, Humboldt included two one-way valves in the design. The mouthpiece was worn directly in the mouth or, when the circumstances demanded so, attached to a protective full-face mask of metal with eye-glasses.
Another pioneer in takeaway air was the Hungarian general and engineer Kőszeghi-Mártony. His equipment was originally designed for soldiers but could be used by firefighters and miners as well. Compressed air from a wrought iron cylinder on the back flowed into a goatskin hood where it mingled with the exhaled air, thus enabling the wearer to breathe for up to 30 minutes.
A mask of the filtering type was John Roberts’ mask ‘for enabling persons to breathe in thick smoke’. It combined a hood, strapped around the neck, with a tube attached, that ended just above the floor, where a small container with a wet sponge dangled.
When some of these apparatuses may seem irksome to wear, we need to realize that they were not designed for comfort. If they worked, they immensely improved the chances that the wearers and the persons they were set to rescue, survived, for they allowed them to enter a dangerous environment and stay there for a few minutes, where this had been impossible before.
Miners, gilders, healers by inunction, chemists, potters, glass-makers, painters, sulphur-workers, blacksmiths, plasterers and lime workers, apothecaries, cleaners of cesspits, fullers, oilmen, cheese-makers, lutestring-makers, tobacco-workers, corpseworkers, midwives, nurses, vintners and brewers, starch-makers, corn-sifters and measurers, stonecutters, laundresses, hemp-, flax-, and silk-workers, bathmen, salt-workers, workers who stand, sedentary workers, runners, horsemen, porters, athletes, workers on minute objects, voice-trainers and singers, farmers, fishermen, soldiers, the learned, printers, writers and notaries, confectioners, weavers, coppersmiths, carpenters, razor and lancet grinders, brick-makers, welldiggers, sailors and rowers, hunters, and soap makers: they all suffered from diseases that could be linked to their work.
The classification is drawn by Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714), often referred to as the ‘Father of occupational medicine’. Not only was he early to write about the relation between diseases and professions, he also suggested means of prevention such as gloves and masks. The latter could be especially useful where workers were exposed to toxic vapors and dust. One material that was particularly dangerous, was lead white, used for pigment in great quantities by painters and potters, let alone the factories where it was made.
Mercury vapors and -dust formed another danger to which workers in a diversity of industries were exposed. Fire-gilders, mirror makers and hat-makers could all suffer from severe symptoms, such as loss of coordination, memory loss and mental disturbances – hence the expression ‘mad as a hatter’. Richard Bridgen patented a mask for gilders that consisted of a ‘leather mask or hood, which is fitted to the mouth and nose of the operator, and communicates with a pipe which turns backwards over his head, so that he breathes the air from behind him, which is not supposed to be contaminated by the noxious fumes of the mercury. (…) A flexible tube of oiled silk may be tied to the end of the tube, and conveyed to the nearest window, so as to give the workman the pure atmospheric air…’
Louis-André Gosse from Geneva refined the sponge-mask for hatters and gilders that his father had advised already in 1783 and that consisted of a soaked sponge tied against mouth and nose. Gosse selected sponges that were conic or cut in thin layers to adjust them in a manner that they covered mouth and nose, attached to the head with ribbons. Saturated with the proper fluid, the same mask was said to offer prevention against gases and contagion.
Masks for everyday use
In Victorian times, the air in London wasn’t so different from what miners and firemen had to cope with in the most perilous situations. Okay, that was a little exaggerated. But when Julius Jeffreys, a surgeon who had been living in India due to his assignment in the previous years, returned to England, he was welcomed by an ongoing rumpus of raucous coughing. A startling amount of people (among them his sister-in-law) suffered heavily from pulmonary diseases, and they were the main cause of death in England. After Jeffreys concluded that the British climate was responsible for these afflictions, he invented a protective device that people could wear when going out or even 24/7 at home, and named it the ‘Respirator’. It consisted of a leather mouth-mask with a grid of fine metal wires that was supposed to ‘abstract the heat from the breath during the act of expiration (…) and give off or transfer such heat to the incoming air which is drawn in during the act of inspiration, and thus to warm the air, and render it unirritating to the bronchial and other pulmonary surfaces, by which means the person using such apparatus will constantly breath warm air.’
Although it was not a filter in the first place, in London, where the smog could be thick as pea soup, the Respirator offered this as a beneficial side-effect, in Jeffreys’ words:
‘There is yet another point connected with the atmosphere of cities, in which the mechanical action of the Respirator is of value. It filters the air from particles of dust, soot, and even smoke...’
William Brown Rooff was one of many entrepreneurs who launched their own Respirators. He added a system of valves to his rip-off, so that ‘the vitiated or expired air may be conducted away without mingling with the pure air to be inhaled through metal channels and made to impart heat to the pure air by its passage through them.’
Rooff’s business florished even better when he was sanctioned by John Stenhouse to manufacture masks in accordance with his principle. This Scottish chemist had done experimentations with the disinfecting and deodorising properties of charcoal, and in 1854 he presented a mask that had a filtering layer of this material. Where Jeffreys’ object was merely to warm the air, for Stenhouse it was to purify it, making it suitable for protection against toxic gases in mines, chemical industries and sewers, as well as for prevention of malaria and contagious diseases. Rooff’s ‘Improved respirator‘ combined the advantages of charcoal with one-way respiratory valves.
Meanwhile at the fire department
New inventions were being introduced, habitually founded on one of the three ways of providing breathable air: through a hose that led to somewhere far away, from a reservoir carried by the brigadeer, or through a filter.
To the first type belong the inventions of Charles Deane and Gustave Paulin (see above). One example of the second type had an inflatable reservoir of rubber and was invented by A. LaCour, in use by American Brigades.
Filtering masks though were the cheapest, faster to apply and they left the wearer the most elbow room. They could be made of leather, gutta-percha, oilskin or other airtight materials. Sometimes they had an outside layer of an absorbent fabric that was kept wet during actions. The filters were applied under the hood or attached to it. One of the more elaborate filters was invented by the Irish physicist John Tyndall in 1875. His cooperation with Captain Eyre Massey Shaw from the London Fire Brigade resulted in a hood of calfskin, with a brass tube attached in front of the mouth. This tube was closed on both ends with wire gauze, and contained layers of dry cotton-wool, cotton-wool moistened with glycerin, freshly burnt charcoal and lime, a combination that was supposed to offer protection against all possible hazards.
Every now and then, and especially in time of epidemics, the question arose; if a mask can protect against dust, smoke and gases, why wouldn’t it protect against diseases as well? Then ofcourse, you have to understand the mechanisms of contagion, or even know what a disease is. For all this time when masks and hoods with integrated protectors were already in use by miners, firemen, factory workers and disinfectors, doctors still held a pomander or a posy near their nose when they visited patients suffering from the plague. Even when Pasteur’s and other’s ideas about the disease-causing germs began to find recognition in the 1870s, this didn’t result in a widespread use of medical masks at first.
A few years before John Tyndall joined forces with Shaw, he had experimented with respirators with cotton-wool filters, ‘to intercept the floating matter of the air’. With this matter he not only meant dust and dirt, but also, since he was an early convert to Pasteur’s theory ‘the germs by which contagious disease is said to be propagated.’
Another mask with a cotton-wool filter that was thought up to protect against dust and diseases (diphteria, cholera and typhus are named) was introduced by Oswald Wolff. His was a fairly simple mask that covered nose and mouth, the cotton-wool being applied between two layers of cotton gauze, held in position by a leather mount.
Where masks such as those by Tyndall and Wolff were designed to protect against dust AND diseases, Henri Henrot’s metal gaze mask with cotton-wool filter aimed specifically at the latter. He claimed that his device was meant ‘specifically in accordance with Mr. Pasteur’s theories and was fabricated to allow doctors and nurses to move to the center of a pestilence, among the sick, the dying and the dead without the least danger’. Until the turn of the century however, advocates of such protective measures met with heavy criticism and were often ridiculed, something we might recognize from the times when everybody still believed ‘miasma’ or God’s wrath to be the cause of epidemics.
Other masks were still solely meant for protection against dust. They were worn by factory workers, artisans and construction workers.
Hutson R. Hurds respirator (1879) was meant to ‘prevent the admission of poisonous or noxious gases, or particles of dust or other matter, into the throat and lungs’. His innovative rubber cup set a new standard for industrial masks, and it looked very much like the models that are still being used today. It had one valve for the outlet of impure, exhaled air, inhaled air was filtered in the sponge chamber.
An example of a mask that offers extra protection by adding medication such as glycerin to the wadding is Reynal O’Connor’s Respirator, which was tested in factories and hospitals and proved functional in protecting workers in factories against dust and of surgeons in operation rooms against the ‘poisonous air expired from the wounds’.
May this overview start to get a bit jumbly, then our point is proven. For there is no lineair development from one early mask to a present one. The history of protective masks is one of adopting and adapting. The history of medical masks, whether they were useful, useless or harmful, can’t be isolated from dust-cloths, smoke-caps and diving helmets. Within this history, the presence of plague masks is not pivotal, but marginal.
The next room shows a selection of protective masks from our digital treasury. Medical masks, lung protectors, smoke hoods, respirators, hazmat suits etc. They have in common that they’ve all been used at a certain point in time against a certain danger. Sometimes they even were succesful. They are the real masks that remain so often unseen behind the ubiquitus yet imaginary Doctor Beak.