habit shift: wearing a face mask.

May 6, 2020
My kids in masks, outside our first Brooklyn apartment building

As a child, my grandfather lived above an undertaker’s shop on West 25th Street. The building, like my grandfather, is no longer with us, but my uncle sent a photograph of it this week, reminding me that my grandpa would have been a New York City kid, just a year older than Faye is now, during the Flu Epidemic of 1918.

I can’t ask my grandpa to confirm, but it seems likely enough that from his own apartment windows he would have witnessed first-hand an overwhelmed funeral parlor; that he might have gotten lessons on the spread of germs and properly covering his sneeze; that he might have worried; that his mother might have tied a gauze mask around his mouth and nose before sending him out the door. It’s always a comfort to think of the roots my family has all around this city, but as I watch my kids on the daily walk we take to stretch our legs, it’s been especially poignant to also think of my grandpa.

I swapped the cotton ties on my kids’ masks for elastics this week. Tying and retying a mask around the slippery hair of an almost 6-year-old was becoming an onerous task on the already long list of things to do before we leave the house. Silas was boycotting his mask altogether. Most of all, I finally admitted to myself that we’re in it for the long haul mask-wise, and that we might as well make them as comfortable and easy for everyone as possible.

I’ve also realized we could probably do with some more. A cloth mask is something that needs washing and having a backup, for the kids especially, feels prudent. Since I’m not sure I have it in me to sew a second batch by hand, and because so many others have asked, here’s a short list of small businesses making comfy-looking masks, including those sized specially for kids. If you have others to add to the list, please feel free to share. And if you’d like to try your hand at making a mask yourself, well, I’ve got you covered there, too.

Adjustable Botanical California Cloth Masks from California Cloth Foundry
Admittedly, these adjustable organic cotton masks might be the holy grail of cloth masks. They’re USA-grown, milled, and sewn from a sustainable supply chain. They can be restrung and worn either over the head or behind the ears. Their buy one, give one model donates to a different nonprofit weekly.

Deadstock Fabric Masks from Christy Dawn
5-packs of masks in solids, stripes, and florals in sizes for adults and kids. For every 5-pack of masks sold, Christy Dawn will donate five more to folks in need.

Floral Face Masks from Wunderkin
These masks use dance nylon for strong and comfortable ear straps. They feature an interior pocket for an optional disposable filter. They come in three sizes, including one for kids.

The Keep America Moving Mask from Steele Canvas
Denim and flannel masks in sizes for kids and adults. Elastic ear straps are adjustable. For every mask sold, Steele Canvas donates a second mask to a front-line worker.

Fabric Face Mask with Ties from Reformation
Reformation is partnering with the City of Los Angeles on LA Protects, an initiative to organize local manufacturers to make five million non-medical masks for essential workers. Options to purchase or donate.

Linen Face Masks from Fog Linen
Linen masks with elastic straps and a pocket for an optional filter. For the remainder of the year, a portion of the sales will benefit The Center for Disaster Philanthropy Covid-19 Response Fund.

Organic Cotton Face Masks from For Days
For Days is donating five organic cotton masks for every pack of five masks sold. Options to purchase or donate.


And for anyone else curious about old New York, a few finds:

My grandpa’s building as captured by a 1940 tax photo. (Here are detailed instructions for how to search The NYC Municipal Archive Online Collections for New York City street photos. Just in case going down rabbit holes is something you like to do!)

New York in 1918 from Urban Archive.

How New York City Survived the Spanish Flu from Untapped New York.

What New York Looked Like During the 1918 Flu Pandemic from The New York Times.

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  • Reply M May 6, 2020 at 4:55 pm

    Erin — This is poignant and helpful — thank you. ♥️

    (One note: the link for The Keep America Moving Mask from Steele Canvas actually goes to Fog Linen.)

  • Reply Kathleen May 6, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    Although we do not live in a place where we need to wear a face mask every time we go outside (small city, single family home, fairly big yard), I’ve also been thinking about how for the long-term we should probably have more than one per person. I too sewed masks for my family a few weeks ago – they are the kind that are fitted to your face (no pleats) and it was nice to be able to size them to each of my kids. But I just ordered five more through your link to For Days. Thanks for all your beautiful content recently. And I hope you and your family continue to stay healthy and hang in there in the weeks ahead.

  • Reply A May 6, 2020 at 5:39 pm

    Just a word of warning about Christy Dawn masks. They are way behind on production. I ordered a batch 1 month ago and they have yet to ship.
    I’ve been able to receive cotton masks in a timely manner from Kira kids brand. Recommend checking them out!

  • Reply Kate May 6, 2020 at 7:55 pm

    Something that really helped my kiddo decide wearing them was okay and not scary or strange: photos of his other family wearing them. His aunt and uncle who are doctors, mommy and daddy at work, grandparents, another uncle who works in a grocery store, his teenage cousin… that and practicing on his favorite stuffed dog.

  • Reply Melkorka May 6, 2020 at 9:25 pm

    I have been thinking a lot about 1918 too. I watched the PBS American experience episode about it and found it fascinating & terrifying but also strangely familiar. This is a troubling time, thank you for writing, for continuing to share your voice and perspective with us – it is a comfort.

    • Reply Jess May 13, 2020 at 7:38 pm

      This is extremely poignant and helpful. Many people are spreading fear about govt conspiracies making us wear masks and how this is “just like the flu”. I think many people forget that the flu was brand new once and it most likely had very similar circumstances surrounding it at that time of your grandfather.

  • Reply Julie May 6, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    Go Gently Nation has nice masks for adults & kids.

  • Reply Liz Woodbury May 7, 2020 at 6:56 am

    My tiny t-shirt company (it’s me, my husband, and my quarantining college-age son) is making masks too. So far we’re able to keep up with orders and are shipping them out within a few days. We’re donating one for each mask sold, to Hospice of Maine and the Maine Veterans Homes. The link is https://miloinmaine.com/collections/face-masks if anyone’s interested!

  • Reply Becky May 7, 2020 at 11:50 am

    Erin! thank you so much for the link. I will go that down that rabbit hole for sure. both of my father’s parents were born and raised in Brooklyn, Baltic and Smith Streets. I have walked by both of their doors many times. My grandfather’s building 198 Smith street is currently a retail store with apartments above it and I am curious if it was that way when he lived there.

  • Reply Carol B. May 7, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    Talk of your grandfather living above an undertaker’s shop reminded me of the PBS special about the 1918 epidemic. They had pictures of kids playing on the wooden caskets. I don’t think they knew about germs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the pictures were from where your grandfather lived? We have come so far since then and learned so much. I can’t imagine what it has been like for you to live in a city hit so hard by this. You truly can understand the shoes your great grandmother lived in then.

  • Reply Jillian Williams May 7, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    Erin, thank you so much for your level-headed approach. It’s important to recognize that this is indeed a habit shift for the whole world. On the same topic, I’m part of a wonderful organization called Make Masks. We’re an all-volunteer sewing collective making cotton masks for essential workers and we need more people who can sew masks (although donations of materials are also appreciated!). We have free resources, patterns, and support for everyone to use. If anyone would like to sew a batch of masks, our volunteer coordinators can help get them to an organization in your community that needs them. We’ve already made and shipped over 40,000 masks. Please consider joining us. We’d love to have you! https://www.makemasks2020.org/

  • Reply Kimberly A. May 7, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    Hi Erin! Kordal Studio is making masks in partnership with the New Denim Project and donating proceeds to Meals on Wheels. It’s a ‘pay what you can’ model for a set of 3 masks.

  • Reply Kellyn May 7, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    I’ve found jersey ties to reign supreme for face masks…I only put my 3 y/o in elastic if she’s biking/using her helmet.

    My kid has taken to it pretty easily….and now loudly points out everyone we pass who is not wearing a mask.
    I don’t really mind.

  • Reply BRI May 8, 2020 at 2:28 am

    Perhaps gloves are another Covid-19 creative project option; as infections are spread with physical contact. If I had to choose between a mask or gloves I might choose gloves, if I was completely well, and keeping social distancing measures.

    • Reply BRI August 16, 2020 at 7:23 am

      – an added note: please wear a mask if there are infections where you live. I would edit my comment because I don’t wish to be misleading.

  • Reply Ess-Kay May 8, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you for your calm presence in the midst of all of this. I appreciate your links to 1918. My great grandmother was pregnant and contracted the flu in Chicago. She died just 24 hours after her diagnosis. Her husband and her 3-year old daughter (my grandmother) also had the flu, but they survived. I have a copy of the letter my great grandfather wrote to his in-laws after his wife died. It makes me cry every time. My grandmother lived for 91 years, but she never forgot the last day of her mother’s life. That is the reason I get a flu shot every year and it’s the reason I’m not messing around when it comes to this current situation.

  • Reply shannon July 31, 2020 at 11:35 pm

    As Bright As Heaven is a novel about the 1918 flu pandemic in Philadelphia. As someone living in Philadelphia today it was especially poignant to think about the very same streets I live and work on being ravaged by a pandemic with many similarities to the present situation, but with even more unknowns and a steeper loss of life. I definitely enjoyed reading it even if it felt a little intense given the current situation.

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