While reading my February, 2007 edition of Smithsonian magazine (yeah, I'm a leeetle behind on my magazine reading) I read the most fascinating article by Caroline Alexander called "Faces of War." I felt I just had to share it with someone, and you are my intended victims. Since I have a completed manuscript out making the rounds featuring a hero facially disfigured from a bomb explosion during WWI, this story was especially interesting to me.
The article tells of Anna Coleman Ladd and Francis Derwent Wood, artists who lent their talents to those whose faces were destroyed beyond the abilities of plastic surgeons of the World War I era.
Once the victim's face was completely healed, a plaster cast was made of their face--this in itself was a claustrophobic, uncomfortable procedure. From the cast, a clay 'squeeze'--or statue-like rendition of the face--was made. Then, using the squeeze, along with a pre-injury portrait of the patient, a mask was made.
Made of galvanized copper 1/32 of an inch thick (about the thickness of a playing card), the mask was fashioned. The mask weighed between 4 and 9 ounces, would cover all or part of the face and generally held to the wearers head with a pair of eyeglasses-like spectacles. The metal was then painted to match the wearers skin tone including adding a blueish cast to the cheeks to resemble shaven cheeks--a very difficult task as skin tone varies depending on the light. Then eyebrows, lashes and moustaches were added.
Of course, these masks were exactly that--masks. Their expression didn't change or add animation to the wearers face. Their sole purpose was to give the wearer confidence to expose himself to the world. If the wearer was only give a brief glance, the mask made him look perfectly normal.
As primitive as these devices seem to us, the masks changed the wearer's lives, they gave them confidence and became part of their daily lives. The masks were intended for use for only a few years before normal wear and tear took their toll, but by 1920, the studios were closed. That didn't stop the men from continuing to wear them, battered and beat up as they may be. Few if any of these masks are around today, mainly due to the fact that the men were buried in them. They were as much a part of their lives as a pair of eyeglasses or a set of dentures.
Smithsonian has several before and after pictures in the article. If you have access to a magazine, I suggest you check them out, they're incredible.
UPDATE: Here's a video of the creative process behind the masks, and here's a link to the original article with photo gallery.