Masks have captured our attention in 2020, with public health officials advising that it is one of the best ways that Americans can protect the health of their friends, neighbors, and essential workers and minimize the spread of COVID-19. Just as during prior periods of crisis, Americans have turned to sewing and crafting, making masks out of T-shirts, scarves, or coffee filters. Designers, clothing companies, and small-scale crafters who market their goods on websites like Etsy began producing masks to supply them first to essential workers facing a national shortage of medical-grade masks, and then to the public at large. But masks vary widely in comfort, ease of use, and style: some have nosewires while others do not; some fasten with elastic loops, and others with bias tape ties; fabric color, weight, and pattern differ. The design elements of a mask seem simple, and yet subtle tweaks make the difference between comfort and discomfort, wearing and not-wearing. And medical-grade masks face an even higher bar to meet both comfort and safety standards. The N95 mask—specially designed to filter out airborne particles—has entered our cultural vocabulary in recent months, quickly going out of stock as an anxious public sought protection. But how was it designed, and what can its origins reveal about women’s history?

3M Products

While the actual filtration material in N95 masks wasn’t patented until the 1990s, the design ideas for the molded, unwoven mask originated with a woman designer: Sara Little Turnbull. Her career, which spanned much of the 20th century, took her from New York City to the west coast. Corporate behemoths including 3M, CorningWare, and Revlon eagerly hired her design consultancy. Little’s approach to design combined careful observation of cultural behaviors and practices, creative use of materials and forms, and was guided by her belief that design should serve the end-user, who might well be a woman. 

Image © Center for Design Institute

Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Little attended Brooklyn’s Girls Commercial High School on Classon Avenue and Union Street, where classes in industrial design, dressmaking, and textile design trained young women to pursue professional careers in industrial design. Taking advantage of their proximity to the Brooklyn Museum, the school utilized the museum collections to teach design and inspire student work. Little—then Sara Finkelstein—won a School Art League scholarship to the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now known as Parsons) in 1935 for her silk textile design.

Image © Center for Design Institute

This dress in a 1935 issue of Vogue Patterns features Little’s award-winning print. Image © Center for Design Institute

She began working at House Beautiful in 1941 with a column entitled “Girl with a Future” and worked her way up to decorating editor, shaping American taste in homegoods and entertaining. In 1958 she established her own design consultancy, advising companies from Coca-Cola, Macy’s, and Revlon. An extensive traveler, Little combined her interest in how people use objects with cultural influences, the unique qualities of different materials, and a curiosity in how objects can enhance the lives of their owners. 

Little participated in the design of objects that would have been familiar in the American home, and to women in the home in particular. She designed the Classic Centura and Terra tableware patterns for Corning, and furniture for McGuire. Focused on creating designs with both aesthetic and functional value, she believed a design could only be successful if its ultimate owner found it useful. Her 1958 article reviewing a large housewares tradeshow gained attention from several major manufacturing companies for its critique of products designed to appeal to wholesalers, design magazines, and retailers without sufficient consideration to how the object might improve the lives of their likely female users.

Image © Center for Design Institute

It was Little’s time as a family caregiver, an experience common to many women, that led her to identify the need for a better medical mask. Hired by 3M to explore the use of their new nonwoven material in gift wrap ribbons, Little saw extensive possibilities for the material in everything from fashion (bras and shoulderpads) to healthcare, and pushed 3M to develop them. An innovator who carefully observed her surroundings, Little would often reuse and repurpose existing patterns, forms, and objects. Her design for a disposable molded medical mask made from the nonwoven material bore a strong resemblance to the non-woven bra cups whose design she had been working on. Her mask replaced the usual ties with elastic straps, included a nose clip, and was disposable. Ultimately, the original mask failed to sufficiently block pathogens and the mask was marketed as a dust mask until technological developments and further design brought the N95 mask to the healthcare market in 1995. 

Image © Center for Design Institute

The pandemic has introduced new design challenges as we seek to keep ourselves safe, preserve certain elements of daily life, and maintain our relationships at a distance. Sara Little’s creative thinking in design and her consideration of the needs of the users of objects serve as an example of how designers can, and should, create to meet the needs of our current moment.

Written by Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History