History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
Since chemical warfare exploded on the scene with lethal and terrifying force at the Second Battle of Ypres during WWI, nations have been attempting to create defenses for both soldiers and civilians against weapons that are largely invisible and indiscriminately deadly. Gas masks have been on the front lines of this effort.
During the 20th century, authorities were particularly concerned with how to protect the youngest generation from the sins of their fathers. During both World Wars and the Cold War, they created school drills and new mask designs that tried to make the experience less frightening and more protective for the little ones. Except, that is, for that time in the 1960s when the U.S. government decided to use children as gas mask guinea pigs.
Gas masks were a miner’s best friend.
Today, we mostly think of gas masks as a defense against the threat of chemical warfare, but the invention has its roots in a more functional—though no less harrowing—place. Throughout history, certain workers have braved the dangers of smoke and noxious gasses while on the job. In ancient Greece, sponges were used as a form of protection; during the plagues of the 17th and 18th centuries, doctors donned beak-like masks filled with sweet-smelling herbs and spices, which they thought would protect them from both contagion and foul odors.
But the more modern ancestor of what we today know as the gas mask began appearing around the turn of the 19th century when protective gear was first invented for miners. Over the next hundred years, these early masks would go through a series of improvements. Charcoal was added to purify the incoming air, a respirator system was invented, and the masks were made increasingly lighter and more effective in their fit. Each of these changes occurred with an eye toward keeping civilians like firemen, rescue divers and miners safe in the workplace.
And then, World War I broke out.
In 1915, the need for gas masks abruptly changed when the Germans first dispersed chlorine gas across the battlefield of Ypres. The Allies were wholly unprepared for this new form of warfare. While scientists and medical professionals quickly rushed to find a protective solution, soldiers were encouraged to cover their noses and mouths with urine-soaked socks or handkerchiefs as a last-ditch effort at protection.
In 1916, the British Small Box Respirator was invented and it quickly became a ubiquitous part of a soldier’s kit. A 1917 article in The New York Times reported that it cost $156.30 to equip an American soldier, with the $12 gas mask listed right next to the $5 for bullets and $3 for a steel helmet. By the time WWII came around, gas masks were standard issue for both soldiers and civilians, with the British government distributing over 40 million masks to its citizens.
Don’t forget to protect the kids.
During WWII, gas masks were commonplace in both the U.K. and the U.S. At home, civilians were not only encouraged to carry this protective gear around at all times, they were also told to regularly practice using it.
A BBC recording from the time captures the drills schoolchildren used to go through. After making sure her students have put on their gas masks properly, the teacher says, “I want you to get your knitting out and settle down comfortably at your desks. And then I want to see just how long you can sit there with your gas masks on. And when you’re quite quiet I’m going to read you a story.”
The scene of elementary school students quietly knitting and listening to a story while wearing their bulky gas masks was no doubt an eerie one. But some thought there may be a way to make it a little less scary. In 1942, the Sun Rubber Company, with the cooperation of Disney, produced a prototype of 1000 Mickey Mouse gas masks designed for kids aged 18 months to four years. For reasons that remain unknown, they were never mass-produced. And by the 1960s, as this video shows, kids were back to lounging around in the same beak-like grey gas masks as their elders, although theirs were helpfully made kid-sized.