Oral Histories on Mask Making and Wearing

By Allison Smith

Over the summer of 2020 I participated in the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project, hosted by Smith College, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I interviewed women in my family about their experiences making and wearing face masks, and along the way, I learned how women understood their roles in the pandemic and how they adapted to the public health crisis.

Two professors from Smith College, Darcy Buerkle and Kelly Anderson, spearheaded the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project as a way for Smith students to learn how to create historical sources. For me, this project served as a productive bridge between my undergraduate work and studying Public History at the graduate level at UMass Amherst. As a participant in the project, I could choose any topic to explore. Interested in material culture and fascinated by the changing mask fashions even in the short time from the beginning of the pandemic to the summer months, I decided to give women a space to talk about their experiences with face masks. I conducted six oral history interviews over Zoom and collected numerous survey responses from women who generously shared their experiences with mask making and wearing, pandemic life, and the political climate.

To learn more about mask making on a global scale, I also attended the Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit in June 2020, an event hosted by Tulane University.1 During this virtual summit I realized how far-reaching this network of women was and I became even more encouraged to continue collecting oral histories. The Smith College project—which to date has preserved over 100 oral testimonies, and counting—is only one project of many, as the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) is collecting public history projects about COVID-19 in a Made By Us map.2 The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. 

Patricia Stowell showing off face mask, June 23, 2020.

My grandmother, Patricia Stowell, is one of those women who rose to the challenge of mask making. She and other women from her retirement community in Punta Gorda, Florida, shared face mask patterns and debated the various advantages and disadvantages of each. Looking on YouTube for tutorials, my grandmother endeavored to find a pattern that was “loose enough to breathe, but tight enough so that I feel it’s working.”3 She also followed CDC guidelines, using two 10×6 rectangles of tightly woven cotton.4 After drafting a prototype, she located scraps of cotton she had laying around from previous quilting projects and began machine-sewing masks. Stowell not only sewed masks for herself and her husband but her children and grandchildren. After sending masks across the country to her relatives, she joined forces with her friends to make over 100 masks to donate to the local children’s hospital. The generosity and dedication of these women represent only a snapshot of the communities of crafting women across the world protecting those around them. 

Oksana and Tessarae Stowell showing face masks, July 13,2020.

Lori Stowell Smith. July 30, 2020

Other women in my family described moments when mask wearing was unwelcome. My aunt Oksana Stowell described her experience witnessing a protest advocating for the reopening of stores in her Northern California community: “no one was wearing masks and people were hugging each other…stunning difference between how people behave and how considerate they were of each other.”5 Living in a hot spot for the duration of the pandemic thus far, she has seen both individuals committed to public safety and those who disregard safety protocols. My aunt also mentioned interacting with a tradesman coming to her home unmasked. She asked him to wear a mask but “there was so much reluctance, he was rolling his eyes.”6 Conversely, my cousin Tessarae proudly showed me the mask our grandmother made her along with other fashionable homemade masks she has purchased. Despite rude glances and offhand comments by anti-maskers, my cousin remains committed. Although masks are highly politicized in these turbulent times, making and wearing masks projects one’s commitment to public safety. Yet, as my mother Lori Stowell Smith remarked “I look forward to a day when we don’t have to wear these anymore.”7 When that day comes, we will look back and remember the lives lost, but also hopefully the connections made in digital communities, and the urgent commitment of historians to preserve and understand these times.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. Efforts that document women’s work producing masks is an important theme within those efforts. Museums like the Smithsonian American Art Museum are already taking steps to build COVID-19 collections, acquiring among other things, face masks made by Indigenous women.8 The National Museum of American History formed a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force to collect COVID-19 artifacts.9 The task force is most interested in collecting face masks due to their “social and cultural and political baggage.10 Curator Alexandra Lord has argued that collecting homemade face masks would highlight the desperate situation people found themselves in.11 Similarly, the New York Historical Society has asked its residents to hold onto COVID-19 ephemera that can be collected when it is safe to do so.12 

Museums are urgently seeking accessions of COVID-19 face masks but oftentimes must work with the public to create those collections; collecting during the pandemic is a shared experience. The pandemic has offered us the peculiar opportunity to document and preserve a historical event impacting every person, giving us a chance to collect the stories and artifacts of people in marginalized groups, too frequently left out of the story. Are we over-collecting? No. Public historians should take advantage of every story and artifact they can collect, creating more well-rounded museum exhibits that truly showcase the American experience. My grandmother, mother, aunt, and cousin might never have had the opportunity to share their experience in the pandemic, but their everyday stories are significant to remembering COVID-19’s impact on women’s lives. Tattered, recycled, and crafted, homemade face masks exhibit one way in which women adapted to the public health crisis and by collecting masks and the stories associated with them, we ensure the preservation of women’s stories. 

Footnotes:

[1] “Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit” Tulane University, June 17-June 20, 2020. https://events.tulane.edu/content/homemade-mask-virtual-summit.

[2] “Mapping Public History Projects About COVID-19” Hypotheses, last modified April 24, 2020, https://ifph.hypotheses.org/3225

[3] Patricia Stowell, interview by Allison Smith, June 23, 2020, transcript.

[4] “How to Make Masks” CDC, last modified February 10, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fprevent-getting-sick%2Fhow-to-make-cloth-face-covering.html.

[5] Oksana Stowell and Tessarae Stowell, interview by Allison Smith, July 13, 2020, transcript.

[6] Oksana Stowell and Tessarae Stowell, interview by Allison Smith, July 13, 2020, transcript.

[7] Lori Stowell Smith, interview by Allison Smith, July 30, 2020, transcript.

[8] Anya, “Pandemic Face Masks by Native Women Artists” SAAM, published November 22, 2020, https://americanart.si.edu/blog/pandemic-face-masks-by-native-women-artists. Mikaela Lefrak, “The Smithsonian is Collecting Coronavirus ‘Artifacts’ to Document the Pandemic,” NPR, last modified May 14, 2020, https://www.npr.org/local/305/2020/05/14/856120435/the-smithsonian-is-collecting-coronavirus-artifacts-to-document-the-pandemic.

[9] Andrew Dickson, “How Will We Tell the Story of the Coronavirus?” The New Yorker, last modified December 9, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-communications/how-will-we-tell-the-story-of-the-coronavirus.

[10] Dickson, “How Will We Tell the Story of the Coronavirus?” 2020.

[11] Dickson, “How Will We Tell the Story of the Coronavirus?” 2020.

[12] Sarah Cascone, “Museums are Urgently Collecting Homemade Masks and other Ephemera from the Coronavirus Pandemic to Document History as it Unfolds,” artnet news, last modified April 8, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/museums-starting-coronavirus-collections-1827606.

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