Objects That Defined 2020: A Year In Review

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This year has deeply changed us — all at once, things were no longer as they were. That was followed by the slowly dawning realization that the unfathomable was here to stay. The country was rattled; we became situated in the kind of chaos that hadn’t even ever occurred to us as a possibility.

We don’t quite have our footing yet; we’re still gathering our bearings. When you’re thrown for a loop this large, it is hard not to be angry and irritable and, as the circumstances demanded of us, lonely. We’re still looking for explanations: why us, why now, why like this — the world was so relentlessly disorienting every single day. We’ve learned a lot, but we don’t know everything yet.

Somehow, we cobbled our way through. Just as our lives and our selves changed, the stuff around us seemed to change, too. Things that were once important — like work clothes and plane tickets — became virtually obsolete, while mundane stuff like mail and yeast became incredibly valuable and precious. The fear of scarcity and supply chain disruptions sent us spiraling in the grocery store. The essentials, like masks and toilet paper, ruled our lives. At home, many of us let off steam by shopping online. Our simple impulses revealed what we were really in need of new ways to move, live, and survive. We had to fill the incredibly slow and fast passing of time with what we could control.

A year in review feels like a bleak undertaking, so we’ve chosen instead to dissect the objects that defined 2020 and reflect on what they say about us. What’s clear in this strange time capsule is that we were enamored of the ordinary. The small joys of this year stitched together to make a bizarre image, but I think in all of this we did find a way to be happy, too.

Face Masks

Future historians will surely study the evolving presence of face masks in the visual imagery of 2020 — its rapid appearance, its stunning variety, even its curious absence from some contexts (Trump rallies, let’s say). This is the year we learned the difference between the N95 masks that medical professionals need but never seem to have enough of and the cloth versions that became an overnight fashion accessory. From high-end designers to the countless crafters of Etsy, the fashion and apparel business responded with head-snapping alacrity: It was only mid-March when New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman recognized the face mask had become the definitive material “symbol of the current confusion and fear.” This would only accelerate, as this basic medical precaution somehow became an ideological flashpoint. But the new vibrant marketplace, ranging “from the $1 cotton mask from Hanes to a $1,000 gold-studded face shield by Louis Vuitton,” as Adam Bluestein put it for Marker, helped normalize the mask, making it another wearable tool of self-expression that happens to blend vital function into its variable form. That said, this is one fashion trend we’d all like to see the end.

Toilet Paper

As the reality of the pandemic and its consequences sank in, there was, let’s face it, some panic — and panic-shopping — in the air. Among other things, the media went crazy with pictures and footage of empty store shelves — especially the toilet paper aisle. In reality, as Will Oremus explained in what proved to be Marker’s most popular story of the year, the great toilet paper shortage of Spring 2020 was simply a function of that industry being split into consumer and commercial sectors with distinct supply and distribution setups, and a huge chunk of demand shifting from the former to the latter almost overnight. Even so, toilet paper turned into the ultimate symbol of the goods we couldn’t get — hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, Lysol. The most important objects in our lives became the ones that seemed scarce.

Nintendo Switch

In the spring of 2020, when we were perhaps at our most fearful, many Americans found refuge in the Nintendo Switch. The gaming system was released back in 2017, but its popularity skyrocketed when people found themselves trapped at home with nothing to do. Everyone wanted to get their hands on one, so naturally, the console began to sell out everywhere. Some people tried to sell Switches for high markups, hoping to turn a profit and capitalize on everyone’s desperation.

Sales went up by 63 percent in March 2020, according to the NPD Group, which tracks video game industry data. The system’s year-to-date sales are only second to the 2008 year-to-date sales of the Nintendo Wii, a console that has been made obsolete but ruled the early aughts.

On March 20, Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out. It was ridiculously perfect timing. The video game series had a cult following in the past, but the pandemic gave it a particular edge. The plushy world of Animal Crossing allows players to escape the reality of the pandemic and focus on cuter concerns, like how much fake currency it would take to buy a virtual home decoration. Building an island paradise of happy animals (however indebted users may be to a raccoon real estate tycoon, Tom Nook) was a welcome distraction to the isolation and confusion of our new reality. Boredom is no good when the world is also falling apart.

Animal Crossing and the Nintendo Switch offer an alternative to wallowing: the ability to immerse yourself in a world where suffering does not exist. Right now, many people are vying for the Sony Playstation 5 and the Microsoft Xbox Series X. The console mania isn’t stopping anytime soon, and as long as we’re trapped indoors, we’ll need a virtual escape.

Bread

Overnight, the supermarket became a scary place, so we became bakers. Making your own sourdough at home made things a little bit easier; the bread aisle was likely ransacked anyway, and flour and yeast can keep for a long time. Like toilet paper, 2020 also saw flour and yeast shortages, making them like powdered gold. Rob MacKie, the president and CEO of the American Bakers Association, told Slate that the pandemic blindsided the industry because demand typically coincides with the holiday season. Our sudden interest in baking appeared about eight months ahead of schedule and at a higher volume than ever.

People traded recipes for no-knead bread, for banana bread, for pizza dough. It was a communal experiment in taking care of ourselves and each other. A warm piece of bread is even more comforting when you’ve made it yourself. That feeling was something we could share.

The Mail

The pandemic put the United States Postal Service at risk. As Adam Clark Estes reported for Recode, the whole thing was a mess due to a variety of factors: policy changes headed by Postmaster Louis DeJoy and President Trump, a need for government funding, an increase in the mail, and political debates about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. As a reaction, people bought stamps (and gear) to support the USPS and wrote letters to pen pals.

The latter was the result of quarantine boredom. So many of us had been separated from each other for so long, and writing a big, fat “I miss you, what’s up” letter feels more purposeful than shooting out a dry text. It’s also a good way to mark the time.

Endless days and weeks are a little more tangible when letter-writing documents the mundane details of it all. In school growing up, teachers always talked about how historical artifacts taught us about what went on way back when. Letters always fell into this category, and although there’s much that is preserved in the digital world, it’s cool to think about someone decades from now reading old letters that collected the unique sufferings and pleasures of this strange time.

The Bookcase

The remote-work explosion made video calls a routine part of life for many professionals, quickly spawning leisure uses like Zoom quarantini happy hours — and turning homes into de facto TV studios. Inevitably, a whole subculture of judging others’ domestic environments popped up, exemplified by Twitter accounts like Room Rater and Bookcase Credibility. The bookcase, in fact, became a newly vital accessory — perhaps with embarrassing volumes removed — trying to project authority, curiosity, gravitas. (Or falling short. Sample the Bookcase Credibility review of U.K. politician David Lammy’s cramped shelf game: “Credibility cupboard. We are trapped.”) And perhaps we can learn something about, say, Anthony Fauci by taking note of that Sicilian cookbook. Those less interested in enduring such scrutiny could always opt for a virtual backdrop — or just a picture of somebody else’s impossibly tasteful shelves.

Sweatpants

Working, cooking, caring for kids, or just trying to stay busy, the homebound population had little reason to dress up. By May, it became clear that comfy pants had become “the pandemic uniform” for this cohort, with giants like Nike and the Gap as well as a swarm of indie brands scrambling for market share. In a related triumph of comfort over aesthetics, Crocs recently reported that its sales are up more than 15% over last year — and unveiled an instant-sellout collaboration with Bad Bunny, part of a string of such team-ups. Of course the casualization of the professional wardrobe has been going on for decades, but as Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic, sartorial “scolds” have long had it in for sweatpants in particular, labeling them a sign of personal defeat, an admission that if you can’t succeed, you can at least be comfortable. So it’s remarkable that the garment made a comeback, but many would clearly be happy to see the sweats-and-Crocs era wane, and give people an excuse to dress up again.

Plexiglass Barriers

In the before world, the only time we encountered plexiglass was at a sketchy liquor store or in a taxi. But when businesses were forced to close, “essential” ones such as supermarkets and drugstores scrambled to figure out how to protect employees and keep customers coming in safely. One answer was installing plexiglass barriers at every turn; by April, plexiglass makers were straining to meet demand — a new breed of plexiglass consultants had emerged — and it was clear that, as Marker reported, “transparent partitions will soon become as ubiquitous as trash bins.” And let’s face it: Do you even notice plexiglass anymore? What seemed like barriers between us had suddenly become the enabler of bringing people together again.

Fred Perry Proud Boys Shirt

Since its 2016 founding, the far-right, all-male group calling itself Proud Boys — labeled a white nationalist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — has raised its profile through obnoxious rhetoric and openly courting political violence. And to the apparent dismay of Fred Perry, it adopted one of the preppy British fashion line’s signature polos (yellow on black, with the brand’s wreath logo) as a sort of de facto uniform. The company addressed the matter, denouncing the Proud Boys and their “incredibly frustrating” subversion of the familiar garment, which it said had been withdrawn from the U.S. and Canadian markets. It’s not clear why the Proud Boys appropriated this particular style and colorway, but right-fringe groups have shown a talent for stealing and poisoning previously innocuous symbols, from the Hawaiian shirts of the so-called Boogaloo Boys militia movement to the alt-right meme-culture embrace of Pepe the Frog. It may be the very workaday familiarity of the Fred Perry shirt that makes it useful to a group like the Proud Boys, trying to attach a mainstream persona to extremist behaviors.

Heat Lamps

What started out as a symbol of extending a staycation summer turned into a linchpin for restaurants slogging through multiple shutdowns, and trying to survive through winter. With restaurants dying at a record record rate, Moe Tkacik wrote for Marker, and nothing in the way of a coherent government response to help, restaurateurs have responded with incredible creativity: “They overhauled their menus, designed meal kits, branded face masks, experimented with grocery programs, and sold gift cards and sent the proceeds to undocumented workers who couldn’t qualify for unemployment.” Many also added safer outdoor-dining options. But inevitably, chillier weather in much of the country would curb diners’ appetites for the al fresco experience, and as Zara Stone reported, that led to sizzling demand for outdoor heaters as early as August. By the time fall faded into winter, that demand was reportedly outstripping supply, and lately some eateries have experimented with tents, yurts, and plastic “igloos.” The stakes are even higher for these businesses as a third wave of the virus is closing off indoor dining in some regions. Show some warmth toward your favorite local restaurant with a takeout order and a generous tip.

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