When the pandemic began, I found myself remembering an exhibit I saw in January in a museum in Montgomery, Alabama. At the time it struck me as quaintly odd, but now its prescience is positively creepy.
It was about resourcefulness and frugality during the 1920s, when money was so tight that people had to “make do” and waste nothing. Staples like flour and cow feed were sold in printed cotton bags so women could repurpose them. One bag company even offered instruction booklets on how to “make something smart and useful: YOU Can Make this Charming Dress ... from Cotton Bags.”
What ingenuity, I remember thinking, trying to imagine a time when people couldn’t just run out to a store and buy fabric (let alone when they’d be inclined to fashion a dress from a Jim Dandy Cow Feed bag).
A few months later, I no longer needed to imagine such a time. It was here. Suddenly we couldn’t dash out to a store, at least not without suiting up first in protective gear, or popping our trunks at a curbside pickup. We were all improvising and making do, and if wearing dresses made from feed bags seems strange, it’s no stranger than making face masks out of boxer shorts.
History tells us creativity gets unleashed in desperate times. Research shows when people face scarcity, they use resources in unconventional ways.
If there’s a pandemic museum in our future, curators will have plenty of material to bear witness to it, and a theme might be the resurgence of resourcefulness. Sewing machines and power tools were humming again, as evidenced by a surge in handmade masks and a spike in power tool injuries. Newbie homesteaders planted vegetables at such a rate that seed companies ran out of seeds. Gym rats invented their own home gyms, pumping water jugs instead of dumbbells and boosting those glutes and abs using paper plates instead of core sliders. Some stores, including my local 7-Eleven, have added Z brackets above the door handles so customers can open doors with their forearms.
“People are actually walking around the block,” says economist Richard Denniss, author of the lament about overconsumption Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World. “Suddenly, it’s: ‘Who knew there was a footpath there?’”
Freedom from our stultifying routines unleashed our creative energy. Neighbors improvised window choirs. Families recorded songs of hope. There’s been an outbreak of quarantine art: Thousands embraced a challenge to replicate famous works of art using everyday stuff, including toilet paper rolls and cleaning products. Recently I went for my regular lake swim and was delighted to find a whole school of knitted yarn fish — complete with seaweed — attached to the fence.
Any pandemic museum should devote a gallery to the genius behind the Quarantine Machine, a Rube Goldberg-esque invention where the unspooling of toilet paper rolls ignites a chain reaction involving dominoes, a marble run, tumbling objects, and an homage to the pandemic, all captured in a single-shot 63-second video.
Decades ago we were a nation of improvisers, fixers, tinkerers, do-it-yourselfers, and making do-ers, not just to be practical but for the joy of being creative, inventing things, or making them better. We took for granted that this urge was an essential part of who and what we were. It was even patriotic: During both world wars, millions of households supported the war effort by growing their own vegetables in “victory gardens” to reduce pressure on the country’s food supply.
But for a variety of reasons — overconsumption, a more frenetic pace of life, the rise of screen culture, a devaluing of the trades that coincided with cheap offshore manufactured goods replacing American ones — a kind of learned helplessness and creative ennui have taken hold.
“We have built a culture where buying things is increasingly unrelated to using things,” Denniss says. “A lot of what we buy is symbolism. And for the last 40 years, making something yourself — or God forbid, repairing it — is not a very cool symbol.”
Whatever happened to the joy of fixing, and problem solving?
“As a society we’ve become so well off that we don’t need to be creative,” says James Pawelski, a professor of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “We think: I don’t need to sew a button on my shirt. It’s not worth the trouble of buying a needle and thread. And we’ve developed a sense of the arts as entertainment, as something to just sit back and take in.”
But the pandemic has slowed us down, disrupted our routines, and given us what Wordsworth called “the bliss of solitude” to notice and create. “We’re isolated, many of us, and staying home and looking around and trying to make meaning out of what we have around us,” says Katrina Rodabaugh, author of Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More.
In this environment, even as we’re reopening, we need to make do, says Pawelski. Replacing a button on a shirt becomes a project, not an inconvenience. The question is: Will this endure when the pandemic ends? Pawelski thinks most of us will again pay someone to mend our shirts, or buy new ones. But some of us will carry the memory of what we created, how fulfilling it was, and it will change us. “When we don’t need to rise to the occasion anymore,” he says, “we’ll have to find other occasions to rise to.”
I hope many of us will be changed. Yes, this is our annus horribilis, but after the pandemic has passed there will be some things worth preserving. Personally, I’ve been trying to track down old feed sacks on eBay; some of those prints were actually pretty nice. Maybe I’ll make something smart and useful out of them.
Linda Matchan is a Boston-area journalist and documentary filmmaker. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.