In early April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised COVID-19 guidance and advised Americans to wear face masks, reviving interest in a viral photograph — purportedly a family portrait from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that showed a family — cat included — in face masks.
The black and white photograph portrayed six humans, all of whom wore face masks, and one cat — which was also wearing a tiny mask over its mouth and nose. No additional information about the photograph was included.
It appeared on Twitter on March 30 2020:
A 1918 Spanish Flu family photo…no chances taken with that cat! pic.twitter.com/NpVJnfDXpm
— Myko Clelland (@DapperHistorian) March 30, 2020
Among several iterations shared to Reddit, the image was also shared to r/TILI (“thanks, I love it”) on April 7 2020 (“Thanks, I Love This Cat wearing a mask too”):
When that post appeared on April 7 2020, masks in general had become a hot topic and the subject of memes, due to a shift in public habits. The image clearly captured many topical and long-term social media interests when it circulated in March and April 2020. In addition to alluding to the presence of a viral threat, it also showed a family using vintage personal protective equipment (PPE), and — best of all — it involved a cat.
A January 2013 blog post by Pleasanton, California’s Museum on Main (titled “Responding to the Flu, 1920”) included the photograph. That post began with some local background about the Spanish flu pandemic:
In the winter of 1919-20, the Spanish Flu epidemic that had begun in January 1918 was still rampaging around the globe; by the end of 1920 it would kill as many as 50 million people worldwide. Although Pleasanton was still a farming town with a population of fewer than 500 residing within the town limits (1100 if one counts unincorporated parts of the township), it was still vulnerable to the outbreak–in part because of the town’s position on a railway line.
Underneath that image, a caption read:
The Del Perugia family protects themselves against flu, 1918
The image was also present in the archives of the University of California, seemingly added in 2007. It bore a much more vague title (“Image / Flu epidemic, (c. 1920s), photograph”), and did not include the name of the family depicted or a precise date:
FLU EPIDEMIC, 1920. By 1919, the influenza pandemic killed between 20 and 40 million people. So great was the fear of contracting this deadly virus that people as far away as Dublin took whatever precautions they could to protect themselves. Page 75, Images of America : Dublin, by Mike Lynch and the Dublin Heritage Center.
The Online Archive of California hosted the image as well, with similar identifiers. Both online archives cited Dublin, California’s city government as the source, and their site linked back to the University of California’s archive. In August 2018, the image appeared in New Zealand publication Plenty, as part of an article on the Spanish Flu pandemic titled “Black November.”
The photograph often labeled “Spanish Flu, 1918. Family Portrait” is real, and was uploaded to the University of California’s archives in 2007 — well before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. A local museum’s 2013 blog post labeled the image “The Del Perugia family protects themselves against flu, 1918,” but archival images only indicated it was taken around the year 1920, and the family was not named. Nevertheless, the image is undoctored, dated to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and genuinely showed a family and their cat wearing protective face masks.