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The 15 Objects That Defined 2020

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The 15 Objects That Defined 2020

From sweatpants to rubber bullets, a year in culture told through the artifacts we’ll never forget.


5 min read
5 take-aways
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What's inside?

To commemorate “the year that felt like a decade,” revisit the objects that defined 2020.

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  • Eye Opening
  • Concrete Examples
  • Engaging


In what some call the “year that felt like a decade,” deciding what objects really define 2020 is tricky, but consumerism will speak. Face masks and toilet paper come readily to mind, but leaf blowers and Home Depot’s 12-foot-high skeleton? The year 2020 may be remembered for COVID-19 (Plexiglass barriers), seclusion in lockdown (sweatpants) and Zoom meetings (bookcase backdrops), but one can’t forget the Black Lives Matter Protests (rubber bullets) and the political turmoil around the US presidential election (Fred Perry Proud Boys shirts). In this uniquely weird round-up of 2020 artifacts on Medium, Rob Walker brings a light touch to a dark year. 


Ordinary objects such as toilet paper and face masks became symbols of scarcity and fear.

Historians will point to the face mask as the defining image of 2020. As the coronavirus began its spread in January, so did face mask use. The masks became a signature accessory and the variety of styles, from a $1 cloth mask to a gold-studded mask by Louis Vuitton, matched the immense demand.

Masks became a form of buyer self-expression, and not wearing a mask became a statement, as masking up turned into a political statement in some circles.

In emergencies, consumers stock up on essentials, and nothing proved more essential in the early days of the pandemic than toilet paper. No real shortage ever existed, but the industry had to shift to meet new demands in the residential sector, causing supply chain problems. That did not stop people from panic-buying.

The COVID-inspired remote work revolution changed people’s communication platforms, wardrobes and home life.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) imposed a global lockdown. Non-essential, white-collar workers telecommuted, which facilitated new work norms. Meetings happened...

About the Author

Senior writer for Marker by Medium Rob Walker is a longtime contributor to The New York Times and is the author of The Art of Noticing.

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