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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 Material culture centers objects as historical documents that can be read like a text; whether highlighting the physical piece or searching for the biography behind it, this approach reveals complex sociocultural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.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio