Women Are Buying ‘Essential AF’ Shirts, Candles, and Wine Glasses

Spread love, not germs , reads the label on a hand-poured soy candle listed on Etsy for $24.95. Light after a long day of being essential , reads another . A third, recommended as a gift for a health-care worker, uses a curlicue font to declare whoever lights it Essential AF . (“Essential as fuck,” but coy!)
The coronavirus pandemic has separated American workers into “essential” and “nonessential” categories, and in recent weeks, the language has started appearing on all kinds of Etsy products, in the typical playful and colorful aesthetic of the online craft marketplace. There are Essential AF engraved wine glasses and Essential AF purple T-shirts . There are shirts for essential employees printed with I’ll Be There for You , and a reworked Friends logo. Shirts reading I’m Essential ; I Am Freaking Essential ; and Essential: Like a Regular Employee, But Important are all tagged as best sellers. An Etsy search for “essential worker” turned up about 11,000 results when I checked yesterday; “quarantine” turned up 98,000.
[ Derek Thompson: The pandemic will change American retail forever ]
The dissonance between the gravity of the moment and the whimsy of cheaply made merch is startling, but not entirely inexplicable. Etsy’s sellers are predominantly women , and they’re making this merch predominantly for other women, who are looking for something that stylizes risking your life during a pandemic as a trait to flaunt. Essential AF shirts are selling like crazy, and their popularity speaks to the slightly twisted ways in which we are struggling to boost our own morale during a once-in-a-century plague.
Before all of this, you could do worse than Etsy slogan trends if you were looking to read the mood of the average American shopper. Now that mood is being shouted, politely, in your face—curse words relegated to acronyms, but there nonetheless.
Etsy sellers were a bit surprised by the demand for quarantine merch, but adapted to it quickly. “We always had a shirt that said staying In is the New Going Out ,” Heather Fortes, an Etsy seller from Rhode Island, told me. “We noticed that really started selling more about a month ago.” So she leaned into it with all kinds of pandemic-related merch: Her store now has a “Quarantine” section with 29 items, including T-shirt-and-sweatpant sets tagged as “quarantine outfits.” A “Government says I’m essential” design is one of her best sellers, and business has been so good that she’s been able to rehire employees she laid off at the start of the pandemic.
[ Read: What you need to know about the coronavirus ]
Essential-worker merch is “selling like hot cakes,” says Trisha Woods, an Etsy seller from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “My Etsy account is so out of control right now. I’ve never sold this much stuff ever.” Woods first made her first Essential T-shirt for her husband, a distributor for Pepperidge Farm....