Warm ears. Compliments of Chester Greenwood, inventor of earmuffs
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. Winter. What a revoltin’ development this is. I often wonder on days so ridiculously cold like this one is why the Puritans stayed here after arriving and sampling the depths of a Massachusetts winter. I suppose it had something to do with their land grants and, of course, their pertinacious natures and obstinacy. For they were of the variety of folks who say they’ll do a thing and then — do it, never mind that their friends and fellow Pilgrims are dropping like flies all around them.
I often think of such folks on days like this, in winters like this. Excuse me if I get too intimate too fast, but I wonder, yes and for long periods of time, too, for I like to be thorough in my cogitations and day dreams, I wonder… about the socks those Puritans wore, what undergarments and undies they fashioned, how they made vests and sweaters… scarves and hats, each and every item needed… and especially the focus of today’s ruminations, how they kept their godly ears from freezing and falling off, tangible victory tokens for Winter itself, who likes you to remember who is boss around these parts once the December solstice occurs.
Theocracies, autocracies, aristocracies, ideas on this and that, may all come and go but one fact of human history remains constant and insistent: if you live in a frigid climate, your ears will get plenty cold… and must be taken care of right away, whatever your other priorities for the day.
Meet the patron saint of warm ears…. Chester Greenwood.
For just such days, Chester Greenwood and his first epochal invention were born. And today we sing his praises…. while capering amidst snow and ice. Because of Master Greenwood we are safe and warm, ready for anything.
Because Chester Greenwood, whom I guarantee you never heard of until just this moment, is the man who invented earmuffs… and he hailed not so very far from where I’m writing you today, in Farmington in the State of Maine, where laconic residents know the answer to this ancient question, “Cold enough for you?” And then laugh their thin, silent laugh, the one that keeps their human heat within, not cast profligate like into the too brusque air. Mainers are like that, and we like them just that way, especially young Chester and his ear-saving invention.
Like everybody else in Farmington, Chester’s young ears got cold and turned all the colors of distress, first chalky white, then beet red, and finally the deep blue that signifies danger for the continued use, indeed existence of the ears he rightly prized and cherished. And being a practical lad, and caring, too, for the ears of his family and friends, he did what all folks of inventive disposition do… he began to dream up a solution, and fast, for his ears were big and therefore even colder than most.
As every true inventor knows, the solution to a pending problem — that “eureka!” moment — can occur anytime, anywhere. And you must always be ready when it happens. For that industrious young Greenwood boy it occurred one day when he was out having fun — or trying to –at Abbot Pond where he was breaking in a new pair of skates.
This was a very big deal for him, because he came from a poor family (as most Mainers did) with six kids… and new skates were like gold, for all that they had to be shared. Greenwood was anxious to try out those babies… but the wind whipping off the pond was just too much, even for this hardy lad. He raced home to his “Gram”, found in her proper place in the farmhouse kitchen and asked her to see what she could come up with to cover his ears. It was the kind of practical question every real Grammie expects, is glad to get, and can always do something about.
Chester didn’t just stand and watch as his Grammie worked; that was not his way, and so they worked together. Chester supplied the idea and the materials; Gram, proud of her inventive grandson, supplied the artistry and experience of her nimble fingers, and so they got on like a house afire.
Chester wanted beaver fur on the outside, black velvet on the inside to shield his ears. Wool would never do; too itchy.
Once the materials had been selected and approved, it was time to fashion the device that kept them secure and in place. To solve this problem, they chose a soft wire known as farm wire, a precursor of bailing wire. Some later accounts say the resulting device was then attached to a cap.
So readied for the elements, Chester returned to the pond where, with the warmest ears in the county, he astonished his shivering buddies with the joyous dexterity of unremitting youth.
Soon, this 15 year old whiz kid was in the business of crafting earmuffs for old and young alike; for Mainers know a good deal when they see it. And as Chester worked… he, like every inventor before him, made adjustments, improvements, corrections, never satisfied, always in pursuit of the perfect muff, which he called Greenwood’s ear protectors and which, like Henry Ford’s auto, you could have in any color so long as it was black.
In due course, in 1873, and just 18 mind, he was awarded U.S. patent number 188,292 thereby launching a business which kept 20 or so of his neighbors in Farmington gainfully employed for nearly 60 years. At its height in 1936, he produced some 400,000 muffs a year, doing well while doing good… which is or at least should be the objective of every inventor and entrepreneur.
Greenwood, by now a celebrity in the State of Maine and beyond, died in 1937, aged 79. He had lead the most beneficial of lives, finding needs and filling them, the time honored path to usefulness and wealth. Amongst his 130 patents are such devices as improvements on the spark plug; a decoy mouse trap called the Mechanical Cat; his own shock absorber, a hook for pulling doughnuts from boiling oil, the Rubberless Rubber Band, and the Greenwood Tempered Steel Rake.
But of all his many worthy and practical ideas, I still prefer his first achievement, those earmuffs in beaver and black velvet, for you see like Chester, and such great celebrities as Clark Gable, I have big ears, too; so big that in the Alphabet Poll in my high school year book, my ears were photographed after my discerning classmates had voted mine the most notable, and so they were. Delicious.
And thus, with ears like Greenwood’s, I had Greenwood’s problem; that is until I discovered Greenwood’s solution in a pair of Greenwood’s muffs, in black, of course. They were a statement, that I was a practical boy myself, always desirous of keeping these pristine ears in fine working order. Besides, I don’t mind tellling you, I looked killing in mine, arresting, handsome, cute to boot. Not like Christopher Ninnis, that wag, who made derisory comments about sissies in earmuffs, keeping his in a box. But then… look how he turned out.
Note: In 1977, Maine declared December 21st “Chester Greenwood Day” to honor the king of warm ears whilst the City of Farmington, Maine kept employed by Greenwood’s genius, throws him an annual birthday bash, complete with parade where police cruisers are decorated as giant earmuffs. It’s the first Saturday in December. He deserves it, all of it, don’t you thinkl