Going back even further — long before we understood that bacteria and viruses could float through the air and make us sick — people improvised masks to cover their faces, says Christos Lynteris. Lynteris is a senior lecturer at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews, who is an expert in medical mask history.
He points to Renaissance-era paintings where people cover their noses with handkerchiefs to avoid illness. There are even paintings from Marseilles in 1720, which was the epicenter of the bubonic plague, that show gravediggers and people handling bodies with cloth around their faces, even though the plague was spread by the bites of fleas that traveled on rats… More here.
A brilliant article.