Professor Issel Compares Shelter-in-Place Protests to Anti-Mask League of 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Wednesday, April 29, 2020
Black and white photo from 1918 of people waiting in line in San Francisco to get flu masks
People wait in line to get flu masks to avoid the spread of Spanish influenza on Montgomery Street in San Francisco in 1918. Photo by Hamilton Henry Dobbin/California State Library.

THE GUARDIAN (LONDON) -- Parochialism and a wariness toward outsiders armed with expertise played roles very similar to today, says Bill Issel, professor emeritus of History at San Francisco State University. Social workers — often single, college-educated women — were met with “contemptuous criticism” in working-class neighborhoods. But what compounded that phenomenon in San Francisco was a widespread perception of municipal incompetence.

“The protests back in 1918 and 1919 were organized. That sort of distrust of experts, distrust of the government’s point of view was very strong,” Issel says. “The San Francisco of 1870 to 1920 was only gradually moving away from a city that had a huge problem raising enough money through bond issues and taxation to put sidewalks in the street.”