Erika Briesacher, Ph.D., associate professor of history, has always wanted to learn how to sew but with teaching, doing research, and raising a family, she never could find the time. Then the pandemic shutdowns hit last spring and a sewing machine her mother-in-law had recently given her as a birthday present became the focus of a family project.
“All of a sudden, everything was shutting down and we were not able get access to any ready-made masks because nobody had anticipated that we would need them,” she says. “All the supply lines were also really disrupted so we stared at that sewing machine and went, ‘Well, let’s see if we can make some masks ourselves.’”
Briesacher ended up chronicling that family mask-making endeavor and the historical and social implications of mask making and wearing in an article titled “Makers of Living, Breathing History: The Material Culture of Homemade Facemasks.” The article was published in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed blog, Nursing Clio, but that was only its first stop.
Soon after, it was picked up by the National Council on Public History, the American Historical Association, and the National Humanities Center, which archived it as a professional-level Open Educational Resource article in their repository.
Then, based on this article, Briesacher was asked to submit a book proposal to the Costume Society of America Series, published by Kent State University Press. Her book project Make Me a Mask: Material/Culture in a Pandemic has just gone under formal contract. Additionally, Briesacher’s book, Nordic Days: Festival, Culture, and Identity in Lübeck, 1920-1960, is forthcoming in 2021 from Lexington Books.
“It was pretty surprising the way it took off considering it was really sort of an off-the-cuff article and not in my usual research area,” Briesacher, a Germanist, says. “So now I’m working on two books—plural. I’m still kind of amazed to think that there are suddenly two of them.”
A main research interest of Briesacher’s is material culture, which looks at how common objects represent and illuminate historical experience. “Every culture, however primitive or advanced, is absolutely dependent on its artifacts for its survival and self-realization,” she says. Masks are a key item that will tell an important part of the story of these pandemic times.
“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,” Briesacher writes in the Nursing Clio article. “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.”
Briesacher was on sabbatical when the pandemic hit. She had planned to use some of that time to learn to sew. When the sewing-machine gift arrived, “I immediately ran out and got a bunch of material just to practice—not any big bolts of fabric or anything like that, because I knew I would mess it up because I was just learning, and then it just sat there for a couple of weeks.”
As the virus news grew from a distant overseas rumble to a full-blown local emergency, the pieces of material gained new relevance—and they were a convenient size for making masks. The entire family pitched in, including her husband, Alex Briesacher, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Sociology Department.
“Alex sewed some masks. I sewed some masks, and we had our oldest son sewing masks” she says. “The then-10-year-old cut all the material for the masks and we had our 5-year-old observing.”
Briesacher says that masks can indicate social and economic status, given that some are surprisingly expensive or invoke the cachet of a celebrity designer, while others are make-do at best.
But “what is especially interesting about life during COVID is that the absence of facemasks makes as much of a statement as one’s choice in material,” she writes. An example of 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. But the debate over masks is not unique to the current pandemic. Briesacher says 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.
Masks are not only a measure of protection for wearers, Briesacher says. “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.”