Military Gas Mask: A Cultural Icon

My particular object of interest is the ‘General Civilian Respirator’ issued to the British people in the lead up to the Second World War. This ubiquitous mass-produced object has come to symbolize life in Home Front Britain, even though it was never used in action: the much-feared poison gas bomb attacks never materialized.

The first gas masks for use in warfare were developed during the First World War, when the German military pioneered the use of chlorine as a weapon – the original WMD. The first gas masks were simple filters of damp cotton, and were soon superseded by cloth bags soaked in chemicals. By the end of that conflict, the pattern for modern gas masks had been established, with a face mask, eye-pieces, a chemical filter, and a container. You can check out the modern military grade gas mask via https://www.gasmaskpro.com/gas-masks/

In 1934, the British government asked its scientists at the Porton Down laboratory to design a civilian respirator which could be mass-produced at a unit cost of two shillings (10p today). The result was the General Civilian Respirator, familiar to the Second World War generation and to later generations from films, photographs, and stories of the period.

In 1936, a disused mill in Blackburn became a gas mask assembly-plant where, by the Munich Crisis of 1938, more than 30 million gas masks had been manufactured, requiring, amongst other components, a mind-boggling 90 million safety-pins.