Although wearing face masks in many situations is now compulsory, COVID-19 has exposed scientific disagreement on their efficacy. The British government has been, accordingly, ambivalent. But a short propaganda film released during the Blitz reveals that masks were not always as contentious as they are today.
Written and narrated by Max Munden, ‘A-tish-oo!’ was produced at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith by Verity Films for the Ministry of Information in 1941. It was part of a broader World War II campaign that promoted a range of hygiene measures to preserve the health of sheltering and working civilians. Examining ‘A-tish-oo!’ in 2020 sheds light on what was possibly the last time British medical experts and government officials not only agreed on the antiviral benefits of face masks, but actively promoted their use.
Londoners were already familiar with “germ masks”, which had been much discussed during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–19 and during more localised flu outbreaks thereafter. But in 1941 the government took a more targeted approach. Masks appeared as part of a strategy to address the health risks of overcrowding in air-raid shelters, especially in the poorly ventilated Tube stations to which anxious Londoners flocked during the Blitz.
And masks were presented as key to keeping up production efficiency. Even in peacetime, Munden’s narration in ‘A-tish-oo!’ explained, the common cold and influenza cost Britain “millions of pounds a year in lost time and efficiency”. In wartime, seasonal infectious disease could “cut down the output of a factory by a tenth, or even more”. Not wearing a mask could lead to an unacceptable and potentially unpatriotic loss in productivity, visually expressed in the film by a proportionately diminished pile of shells.
The war also provided ‘A-tish-oo!’ with an irresistible metaphor for infection and prophylaxis. Sneezes, in 1941, “fired” germs “into the air like a bursting shell”; masks functioned as a defensive “shield” (“armour plating” or a “steel helmet”). Then, as now, military metaphors for combating disease abounded in medical media and public health campaigns.
The principle, Munden told viewers, was “exactly the same” as for the medical use of masks, “in hospitals and sickrooms”, where doctors and nurses were used to covering up “so that they neither transmit infection to the patient, nor receive infection themselves”.
Britain’s “leading medical authorities”, working with the Ministry of Health, designed a cellophane mask to shield ‘the ordinary man and woman” from “direct projectile infection”. By this they meant germs spread in close quarters by the fine spray of saliva and mucus that hung in the air, like slow-motion shrapnel from a bursting shell, whenever someone sneezed, coughed, spat, or even talked. “In ten minutes,” Munden declared, “this woman’s mask shielded her from no less than 980 colonies of germs.”
The authority and persuasiveness of ‘A-tish-oo!’ rested on a powerful new research tool recently developed in the United States and adopted in Britain at the start of the war: high-speed electronic ‘flash’ photography. Pioneered in the late 1930s by Harold Edgerton, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, flash photography enabled British scientists to study what one American bacteriologist called the “dynamics of sneezing”.
Edgerton’s technique of “stopping time” armed medical scientists and propagandists with striking, never-before-seen images of the “cloud of germ-laden droplets broadcast into the air by a careless sneeze”.
The film also invoked the powerful visual authority of laboratory science to demonstrate the effectiveness of masks. In contrast to the bacterial culture taken from an unused mask ("quite clean"), the incubated dish exposed to a worn mask was "covered with germs".
A woman’s voice (uncredited) took over from Munden’s narration for the instructional segment on how to make your own mask – from a piece of muslin folded “four layers thick”, an “ordinary handkerchief”, or even a sheet of “foolscap paper and an elastic band”.
For the fashion-conscious, she recommended a “piece of chiffon or other fabric”, more in the style of the niqāb than a surgical mask, commenting, “There you have glamour as well as hygiene.” The Daily Mirror in February 1941 reported that this “wartime fashion” item was available from Harrods.
Masks failed to take London fashion by storm. The British government didn’t push them as hard as the more familiar handkerchief, and as a consequence they did not catch on widely. ‘A-tish-oo!’ is, nevertheless, the product of a scientific and political consensus that is hard to imagine today. Watching it in 2020 reminds us of the bizarre nature of the current and constant contentiousness of mask-wearing, justified so often by a supposed lack of evidence as to whether this practice is effective, simply neutral or actively harmful.
In wartime Britain, mask-wearing was merely one common-sense, low-cost component of a raft of health-keeping measures. There’s no doubt that the science and politics of contagion, of sneezing and of healthcare more largely have radically changed since the Blitz. The question remains whether this has really been – in the case of mask-wearing, at least – for the better.
About the authors
Jesse Olszynko-Gryn is a historian of science, technology and medicine at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He is Co-Principle Investigator on an AHRC-DFG-funded project exploring the contested use of drugs in pregnancy and the risk of birth defects since thalidomide. His first book will reconstruct the remarkable transformation of pregnancy testing from an esoteric laboratory tool to a commonplace of everyday life.
Caitjan Gainty is a historian of 20th-century health and healthcare at King's College, London. She is Principal Investigator on the Wellcome-funded ‘Healthy Scepticism’ project and is completing her first book about the distinctively industrial origins of modern healthcare in the United States.