Mail, masks, and the Nintendo Switch: The objects that defined 2020

Emilee Geist

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 make a bizarre image, but I think in all of this we did find a way to be happy, too.

Toilet paper

The fear that one day we were not going to be able to wipe upended our grocery store experiences.

I remember, in the First Days, standing in a big-box store line that stretched and snaked around the parking lot. Someone would dash to the front, where people were leaving, and ask desperately, “Is there toilet paper inside?” But the fleeing customers would disappoint us every time — no, there was no toilet paper or paper towels or bleach or hand sanitizer or anything else we needed. It was anxiety-inducing every single time. It felt like nothing was ever going to be secure again.

Empty shelves in a Target store.

A fear of scarcity left shelves empty in stores across the country.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

It is very American to panic at the first sign of scarcity. I found myself angry — angry! — when my local Costco put a restriction on how many frozen chickens we could buy. One didn’t feel like enough. When the world ended, I wanted to go out with at least two frozen chickens.

Nothing served as better shorthand for the disarming and seemingly random plight of not being able to have what we wanted when we wanted it than toilet paper. As Terry Nguyen previously reported for Vox, Americans make up 4 percent of the world’s population yet account for 20 percent of the world’s toilet paper consumption. The pandemic disrupted the usual speed of our supply chains, and manufacturers had to scramble to keep up. Although the product has little to do with coronavirus symptoms, on April 12, 2020, 73 percent of stores in the United States were out of toilet paper. Production and shipping delays, plus record-high demand and a shift in the kind of TP we used, made what was once a simple household necessity feel precious.

My family tried to ration our toilet paper use — three squares per sit-down, max, which is so funny in retrospect. We should never take those little luxuries for granted again.

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.

Plus, many people had time to wait for dough to rise. We worked from home, or maybe we’d been laid off or were taking care of a loved one or were waiting for an essential worker to get home from a shift. Emily VanDerWerff put it best for Vox: “Bread baking is a thing we do in a crisis, perhaps because bread is one of the very foundations of human civilization. … The world is scary and uncertain. Bread is just science. Or it’s magic. Or it’s both.”

Masks

It’s strange to think about how in the first few weeks of the pandemic, we weren’t even wearing masks. They’ve become such a familiar sight, but once upon a time, they were even discouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was hoping to save scarce personal protective equipment for essential workers. But as mask production ramped up and the curve failed to flatten, mask mandates because vital and common. California’s mask mandate, for example, only kicked in on June 18.

A person sews tie-dye masks at a sewing machine.

Haley Solar, a designer, sews protective face masks in her closed storefront. Many people have been making their own masks during the pandemic to pass the time and protect themselves.
Sarah Morris/Getty Images

Our grandkids are going to ask us about masks, if climate change doesn’t get us first, and we’ll have to tell them we spent a lot of time fighting about them. Many Americans feel that mask mandates infringe on their rights and don’t see them as a kind of civic duty. According to a study in Nature Medicine, 130,000 lives could potentially be saved by February 2021 if mask usage were universal.

This object isn’t as sentimental as others that defined 2020. They were a necessity — quite literally the difference between life and death. People sewed their own masks, donated them to health care workers, shared them with friends and family. Other people tried to capitalize on the panic and hoarded masks in order to then sell them for a fat profit. N95 respirator masks, which provide a closer fit and more filtration, were key for health care workers but were also in short supply.

Nothing was more emblematic of 2020 than the mask, which helped us through but also showed us what was broken in the country. Matters of public safety, like refraining from getting a haircut, became debates about freedom, and our most vulnerable and essential Americans were the least protected.

To-go beers

According to a RAND study, adults over age 30 increased their alcohol consumption by 14 percent during the pandemic. It seemed like the obvious thing to do, when thousands of people were dying every day and the sirens blared on and the news told us we were vulnerable, failing, and probably hopeless. Restaurants and bars were failing, too. The decline began around March 15, when governments in many major cities closed down for the pandemic.

In New York, Gov. Cuomo decided one way to bail out restaurants was through an executive order that allowed the sale of to-go alcohol. This was unprecedented. It has long been illegal to have open containers of alcohol on the street, a rule that feels prudish and outdated but has prevailed. The thrill of a to-go beer was a small novelty, like suddenly living in a different city, and the morale booster we needed.

Plenty of restaurants did not survive the pandemic, but those that are still standing continue to offer to-go alcohol, now with state-mandated snacks. In a state like Louisiana, for example, getting alcoholic drinks to go might not be a new thing, but in New York, it was a game changer. It was just one of many rare freedoms this year gave us, like not wearing a bra all the time; tiny joys to get us through. As Jaya Saxena argued for Eater, hopefully this 2020 mainstay continues into the new year.

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 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.

Fireworks

At the beginning of June 2020, New York City received 1,737 complaints about fireworks, a staggering 80 times more than the previous year, according to the New York Times. All across the country, people also observed an uptick in firework noise in places like Milwaukee, Boston, and San Francisco. Since this occurred directly after nationwide protests concerning George Floyd’s death and police brutality, and well before July Fourth, some entertained the idea that the fireworks might be a plot to disorient activists and Black communities.

This conspiracy theory was never proven, but the explosions rattled many in an especially fraught time. As Matthew Yglesias reported for Vox, it’s hard to know the source of the fireworks — was it actually more noise than usual, or did it just feel that way? It may have been easier to hear the booms with fewer people out and about, or the lack of July Fourth activities could have created a surplus of fireworks that got sold to people who said, “Hey, why not?” Fireworks are undeniably fun, especially when so many people were bored with nothing else to do.

They were gone as quickly as they appeared. I’m not sure when the fireworks disappeared in my neighborhood, but they never occurred to me again until I started writing this story. What even was that?

It was a year of protests: BLM, anti-lockdown sentiment, and even demands from those who desperately wanted the fireworks to stop. On June 23, protesters blared their car horns outside Mayor Bill de Blasio’s home to urge him to take action on the fireworks use. It was a sleepless, paranoid year of irritability.

Kiddie pools

After a spring spent mostly inside, summer demanded that we get outside. Except there wasn’t always a place to go. For those of us without big backyards or easy access to local parks and beaches, it was difficult to figure out how to get much-needed outdoor time while staying safe. Of the 3,000 homeowners who responded to a Home Improvement Research Institute survey, 8.4 percent said they planned to work on their pools or hot tubs in anticipation of the summer, but not all of us have the luxury of a backyard pool. Public pools weren’t an option, either, but the kiddie pool was a solution to that. It gave us a cheap, easy way to cool off and get outside after months cooped up.

In-ground pools, by comparison, are bourgeois. A kiddie pool says: I am a person of the people, a person who is in quarantine and desperate for an oasis. I impulsively bought one for my dog, a toy poodle who was mostly unappreciative of it, but the novelty the whole endeavor provided my family was worth it. There’s something unavoidably joyous about a plastic pool. Its flimsy, fun simplicity looks a lot like this year did, which is that a kiddie pool is a matter of circumstance and deluded “necessity.”

We had to be indoors, and by extension, we had to pour ourselves into strange purchases and fixations. The ability to turn off our brains this year was a luxury all on its own. The barrage of bad news, the sickness of this year and its stressors were innumerable. As Kristen Arnett put it fondly for Vox, “The pool was a momentary womb. A place to float free. The pool was important because of how my body fit inside it and how it fit around me. The pool was a place where I could think, but most importantly, it became a place where I didn’t have to think at all. I could just … exist.”

Peloton bikes

The stir-crazy energy of quarantine encouraged lots of people to start exercising at home. TikTok convinced me to subscribe to the cult of Chloe Ting, a fitness instructor whose YouTube workout programs had rave reviews, but those who were interested in a bigger fitness investment may have purchased a Peloton exercise bike, which in its cheapest package option is $1,895 plus a $39 monthly membership fee.

Many gyms and fitness studios across the country closed (and opened and closed again) over the course of 2020. They’re uniquely complicated Covid-19 hot spots — basically petri dishes. As Alex Abad-Santos wrote for The Goods, “everything that makes group fitness and gyms great is exactly what makes working out with other people one of the riskiest things we can do.”

We’re finding that simulated group experiences aren’t half bad, and in fact feel like more casual entry points to fitness. And the world seems to be all-in on Peloton, which launched in 2012. A share of the company’s stock (PTON) was around $35 at the start of December 2019 and is around $115 as of this writing.

This past decade was so focused on fitness as a public, moral undertaking, as proven by the athleisure trend and the countless group exercise startups and boutiques that are now empty. Peloton allows us the opportunity to sweat like no one’s watching.

Peel-and-stick wallpaper

Countless people became amateur interior designers in isolation. Suddenly, Home Depot looked like an oasis, and its sales have risen by 24 percent in the last year. The pandemic allowed us time and space to reconsider our decor and embark on small adventures in DIY projects.

Enter peel-and-stick wallpaper, an easy solution to the lack of visual stimulation in your quarantine home. If we were going to stare at the walls all day, they might as well look good. As Rebecca Jennings reported in May, online searches for wallpaper shot up at the end of March when people began to get stir crazy. Peel-and-stick wallpaper also worked for renters cooped up in apartments, without permanently altering the space.

We didn’t stop there, though. TikTok was a daily showcase of quarantine DIY projects — tables and glassware and bedroom design and bathroom organizing and anything else you could think of to make your life more aesthetically pleasing. Making something yourself for your home is a source of pride, a morale booster when we needed it most. You can call it the Ikea effect (the theory that consumers are likely to be satisfied with products that they assemble themselves), but there was something special about trading DIY tips with friends and family. It gives us a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation.


The objects that got us through were the psychic desires of a nation battered by ourselves and by our blind spots. This year, all we had was what we could control, what we could share, and what we could hold on to.

We tried to be good neighbors, tried to distract ourselves, tried to keep our lives feeling safe in the ways that we could. These objects brought us together in weird ways, and for all our selfishness, 2020 has been a year of waiting, together, for something better on the other side. The only thing we wanted to believe in more than these objects was a better 2021.

We tirelessly repeated to ourselves, “When this is all over,” a mantra we couldn’t shake because we had to believe in an end. We’re different now, and we might return to the mundane sometime soon, however unknowable “all over” is. Either way, it would do us all good to remember that we survived this and that we should be grateful we got to see it through — and that we’ll never look at toilet paper quite the same way again.

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