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History Of The Gas Mask: How Need Brought Us The Weirdest-Looking Common Tool

Artifacts | April 1, 2020

The gas mask has come to be an international symbol of wartime atrocities, but it began as a tool for people tasked with unenviable and dangerous jobs. Long before chlorine gas filled the trenches of World War I, a fairly simple invention helped people breathe through strenuous activities, whether it underwater diving or coal mining. Although the initial versions of gas masks were created to make life easier for regular people, they went on to (literally) change the face of the military.

(Pinterest)

Made For Firefighters

In the 19th century, more than one intrepid inventor recognized the potential market for devices to filter gas, dust, and muck from the air. Many jobs of the day, and today as well, were hazardous for the lungs of the people doing them: firefighters, divers, coal miners, etc. If they had masks, maybe they'd stop dropping dead so often, or at least be a little more comfortable.

John and Charles Deane patented a "standard dress" helmet for firemen to wear while entering smoke-filled rooms in 1823. It wasn't perfect—a giant helmet wasn’t really a feasible way for firemen to get around—but it was better than nothing. In 1827, they modified the helmet to help divers breathe underwater.

(Supergum)

The Golden Age Of Gas Masks

Between 1849 and 1875, numerous inventors created variations on these breathing mechanisms. It all started when Lewis P. Haslett patented an "Inhaler or Lung Protector,” a creation that looked like the gas masks of the 20th century, although it only filtered dust from the air and not gaseous substances.

Over the next 20 years, there were major leaps in the world of early gas masks. John Stenhouse created a charcoal mask to block noxious fumes, John Tyndall introduced a respirator for fireman to filter smoke from the air, and Samuel Barton patented a device in 1874 to allow for "respiration in places where the atmosphere is charged with noxious gasses." It would be 20 more years before Barton patented the canister gas mask, a device with a metal canister on the front that filters noxious substances through layers of glycerin saturate cotton, granulated charcoal, and granulated lime.

(Black Inventor Online)

The Morgan Safety Hood, For All Your Safety Needs

The patent for the invention that's most like the technology we think of when we hear the phrase "gas mask" was filed in 1914. The Morgan safety hood was created by Garret Morgan, an African-American inventor from Paris, Kentucky. The hood allows its wearer to withstand smoke, gas, and other pollutants, which is why Morgan personally marketed the product to firemen, often demonstrating its usefulness in a scary situation himself.

Initially, the hood was a hard sell, especially in the South, but after Morgan hired a white actor to play the "inventor" of the mask while Morgan acted as a Native American assistant named "Big Chief Mason," fire departments started buying up the product. The breathing device was so successful at keeping its wearer alive that it served as the prototype for the gas masks of World War I.

(Reddit)

The Essential Role Of Kleenex

During World War I, the British army used a few different types of gas masks while fighting in the trenches. Some of them were made for chemical warfare, while others were meant to combat the carbon monoxide released by unexploded enemy shells. One of the most widely used gas masks of the era was the British small box respirator, or SBR, which was created in 1916. The SBR featured a canvas-covered rubber hose connecting to a large mask that fit over a solider's head. One of the key components of these gas masks was the crepe paper used as the filter, which was made by Kleenex long before they transitioned to facial tissue and sanitary items.

(Huffington Post)

Everyone Had A Gas Mask In World War II

The British people have a long memory, and with just over 20 years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, the English remembered all too well the horrific chemical gas attacks that took the lives of so many soldiers. In the time between wars, gas masks underwent relatively minor modifications, but they were major lifesavers. The masks of the late '30s and early '40s were more lightweight than their predecessors, with filter canisters directly on the mask so the wearer didn't have to carry one around.

Millions of these gas masks were produced for soldiers and people living in highly populated areas of England. The fear of a gas attack was so real that English citizens were instructed to carry their personal masks with them wherever they went in case of a chemical onslaught.

(Pinterest)

Disney-Brand Gas Masks

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan, America entered World War II. The out-of-the-blue attack led Americans to believe that anything could happen, including chemical warfare, so gas masks were created en masse for the public. It's not easy to explain a gas attack to children, so with the approval of Disney, the Sun Rubber Company produced 1,000 gas masks bearing the likeness of Mickey Mouse. They were made to fit children aged 18 months to four years as a kind of game to get them used to wearing the mask, but considering how terrifying they looked, it might have been counterproductive. Only a few of these nightmares exist now, and thankfully, they never had to be used.

(National Archives)

Children Tested Gas Masks For The Military In The '60s

Gas masks didn’t go away with World War II. The U.S. government decided to make sure that young people were prepared for a possible Soviet chemical attack, but the Mickey Mouse gas masks were ditched for some reason, so smaller versions of standard gas masks were created to better fit the head of a child.

Early versions of the masks for children were tested on kids who were somehow allowed to sit in a testing chamber that was filled with an aerosol spray. During these tests, children spent up to 10 minutes reading books and magazines in their gas masks while they were bombarded with various noxious fumes and organisms. Fortunately for military public relations, the tests were a success, and we have all of these brave children and horrible adults to thank for it.

Tags: historical artifacts | inventions | war | World War 2 | World War I

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.