Makers of Living, Breathing History: The Material Culture of Homemade Facemasks

Ten days into shelter-in-place orders after my kids’ schools closed, my family and I gathered around the table, staring at a mystery machine. The serendipitous early birthday gift from my mother-in-law – a sewing machine – had been meant for my sabbatical dream of learning to sew. Now, the material I had snagged from a craft store weeks earlier, though never used, provided the opportunity to fashion facemasks for the whole family. We were unable to find masks in all the usual places, and the run on stores for other commodities signaled that we were likely in a whole new era of public life. My partner and I researched easy patterns to practice on, and we took turns learning the secrets of the machine and how to make the material behave. Weeks later, we are still nowhere near professional grade; you can tell we are new to the craft of sewing.

This personal experience reveals a lot about my family, even at the beginning of our experience with the coronavirus pandemic. Both my partner and I teach at a regional public university; I was on sabbatical. We had access to a machine, material, and time, despite the fact we lacked skill. For that, we could turn to internet instruction, something that has quickly become a feature of my children’s academic lives. We have adopted the practice of masking when we go outside, though we reside in a suburban space in a single-family home. Our children have deeply held opinions of their masks, particularly about the colors and patterns they wear. My five-year-old daughter’s favorite mask, made of My Little Pony material, definitively contrasts from my seventeen-year-old son’s mask of choice, a bandana cut from a dark blue sheet.

Analyzing masks themselves, as well as the experiences of people who make and use them – the design, the material, and the prominent place face masks have in our lives – is a way to gain insight into stories of the pandemic experience that cut across social strata. Material culture centers objects as historical documents that can be read like a text; whether highlighting the physical piece or searching for the biography behind it, this approach reveals complex sociocultural behavior. In 1974, E. McClung Fleming commented that “Every culture, however primitive or advanced, is absolutely dependent on its artifacts for its survival and self-realization.”1 That is even more true now, where masks are common objects representing shared experience in the immediate moment. Even the lack of a mask can indicate a political position or the inaccessibility of resources, skill, or time.

Masks have been used throughout history in response to disease, and the differences between them mark particular moments in time. For example, the plague mask associated with Black Death reflected not only the attempt to protect a doctor from being close to a victim but also the early-modern European belief in miasma, dangerous or poisonous air.2 The mask became the physical embodiment of time-specific medical and scientific knowledge. These masks were used almost exclusively by doctors, rather than as a popularly adopted protection from disease. Contrast these to the linen or gauze masks associated with (and widely photographed during) the global influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. Gone were the long beaks to protect against miasma. Following military and medical supply chains already in service during World War I, these new masks were easily produced and distributed. In many cases – from the plague of the 1300s through cholera in the 1800s and influenza of the 1900s – masking was the purview of medical personnel and officials. Masking of the general population was not yet widely practiced, though there were attempts throughout 1918 and 1919.

Red Cross volunteers wear masks during the 1918 influenza pandemic. (Courtesy RawPixel)

Masks of the current pandemic have become ubiquitous and are often overlooked in the analysis of what this time means. Yet, they raise important questions that are worth exploring and open up a rhetorical space to do so. For example, the discourse surrounding Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear company’s facemasks highlight the divergent masking policies by geography, the ability to transition production lines to mask-making (which impacts color choices), and branding. At a cost of $8 a piece, these masks are not out of reach for people who want the cache of the Kardashian brand. But $8 also prices out many who are unemployed or without access to banking or the internet. There are still higher-end masks, such as those constructed out of Louis Vuitton materials (which can run as high as $1,800 dollars), and single-use surgical masks which are worn and reworn well beyond their original intent. In this way, face masks mobilize status, positioning the wearer in a relational hierarchy of culture and society.3

Conspicuous expressions of wealth and status are not the only experiences signaled by the masks people wear. How, for example, is the experience of men of color impacted by public masking endeavors? People who are hard of hearing? What about how poverty impacts the spread of the virus or the added burden of acquiring masks among the global poor? How would their masks be different, and what clues about their pandemic experiences can we draw from those physical objects? Experiencing objects is what makes museums and other cultural institutions unique and important public spaces; they cannot be replaced by facsimiles or accounts. It is why museums such as the Smithsonian are actively seeking objects such as masks that embody all the ways society experiences this pandemic.

The shortage of N95 and surgical masks has recentered DIY and homemade mask-making in public discourse, news reporting, and policy-making. In an age of globally connected markets, the need for homemade masks seemed out of place and even contributed to the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding life in quarantine. As this DIY approach has extended beyond crafting communities, the masks themselves are important markers of skill, material acquisition, and personal statements of life in quarantine. For instance, there are several widely available patterns for facemasks, ranging from rudimentary (a simple square of material folded into a bandana) to more sophisticated, providing space for filter inserts, pleats, and embedded materials to fit the mask to the wearer’s face. People with these more complicated masks know how to sew well, have the resources to purchase one from someone else, or have a connection to someone with the skill or material. Newer technologies, like 3D printing, can adapt easily to constructing hardier faceshields and the like – if you own a 3D printer. The types of face coverings and individuality of mask material and design have taken on their own lives, as people seek to put their own stamp on a practice that will persist in absence of a vaccine.

People protesting COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in Ohio congregate in groups without wearing facemasks. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

What is especially interesting about life during COVID is that the absence of facemasks makes as much a statement as one’s choice in material. Perhaps reinforcing this point was the uproar surrounding Vice President Mike Pence’s unmasked visit to the Mayo Clinic at a high point of infection in the United States. This is not to say that the debate over masks is unique to the current pandemic. In fact, debates raged during the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic about whether the public should be compelled to mask, whether masking was effective, and whether the choice was to mask or shelter-in-place. Sound familiar? The presence of a mask at all becomes a political statement as well as a site for public surveillance, potentially identifying the public figures and data one believes. This is also the case for the practice of social distancing, whether groups congregate, and where. The lack of a face mask makes it easy to identify those who, for whatever reason, buck authority and public practice.4

Discourse about gendered behaviors and attitudes are also front and center. During the 1918 influenza, men were harder to convince to wear masks, believing the practice to reflect “mothering” or feminine impulses. Now, online posts about mask patterns and sewing hints still come largely from female-dominated maker communities. Nichole M. Leveck, for example, produces masks as a form of activism, by calling attention to movements such as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW) movement and refusing to charge for her creations. Much of life in quarantine, including mask-making, explicitly posits how gendered the pandemic response is, where working at home, childcare, and DIY adaptations fall disproportionately on women. Despite articles about accommodating “pandemic beards” and ensuring protection against the virus, the very act of wearing a mask is gendered, as is discourse surrounding health, virility, and strength (even the perspective that masking is not masculine).

The wave of demonstrations following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others in the last few weeks has moved masking discourse into the background, but the visibility and prevalence of face masks – often incorporated into the protests themselves – center the context of the pandemic. That masks are not only a measure of protection for demonstrators. They are also evidence of attitudes from this time and place. Preserving these masks preserves the histories of the people who make and use them, embodying the complexities facing individuals and society in 2020.

Thank you to Dionna Richardson, Lisa Kramer, and Paul Butenhoff for reading and commenting on drafts.

Notes

  1. E. McClung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 9 (1974), 153. Return to text.
  2. There is some debate about whether the long-beaked mask was ever actually worn by 17th- and 18th-century doctors or whether the “costume” emerged from visual and satirical representations of medical personnel during plague epidemics. So-called plague masks were certainly adopted by carnival in Europe, which has contributed to its association and mythology. Return to text.
  3. See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987) for a discussion of the concept of taste and its relationship to objects and apparel that is consciously displayed. Return to text.
  4. Michel Foucault highlights public surveillance and its connection to political and social power in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995). Return to text.

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