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Fascinating facts about the invention of
Earmuffs by Chester Greenwood in 1873
.
EARMUFFS
It all started with ears, Chester Greenwood’s ears. Chester’s ears got cold. They got so cold something had to be done. That something was an invention by a fifteen-year-old boy that would support him for the rest of his life. The invention? Earmuffs. Later, when Chester Greenwood had become a legend, newspaper writers started the story that his ears turned weird colors in the cold.
Advertisement with Chester Greenwood's son Clinton as a model. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Chester Greenwood’s ears were so sensitive that they turned chalky white, beet red, and deep blue (in that order) when the mercury dipped." Talk to the Greenwood descendants and the facts of the matter are different. What was wrong with Chester’s ears? "Just cold," says grandson George Greenwood. "Big and cold."

The neighbors in Farmington, Maine, had always been impressed by Chester’s drive and initiative. As one of. six kids in a farm family on the back Falls Road struggling to make ends meet, Chester did his best to help out. The family kept several laying hens, and Chester walked an eight-mile route from house to house selling eggs. Sometimes he sold fudge or other candies such as peppermints and drop sweets that he himself had made.

But for all Chester's industry, the flash of inspiration for his famous kid invention came to him at a moment when he had decided to relax and have some fun. One day in the winter of 1873, Chester walked to nearby Abbot Pond to try out a pair of new skates. The nip in the air sent him racing home. He found "Gram" in the farmhouse kitchen and asked her to help him fashion something to shield his ears. Chester s ears itched fiercely at the touch of wool, so the everyday muffler most kids wrapped about their heads was out of the question.

The Greenwood Champion Ear Protector, as he later called the device, didn't take much time to put together. Chester supplied the idea and the material; his grandmother's fingers contributed the sewing skill. It was breathtakingly simple. The muff required bending some wire, cutting soft insulating material, and then sewing a few stitches.

To shield his ears, Chester decided on a combination of beaver fur on the outside and black velvet for the surface against the ear. For the headband, he chose a soft wire known as farm wire, a precursor of baling wire. Some accounts say the contraption was then attached to his cap. The Ear Protector proved an instant hit. All over Farmington and in the surrounding community, kids started to pester their parents and grandparents to make the thing.

Despite his friends' enthusiasm, Chester wasn't satisfied. The first model didn't work so well. "The ears flapped too much," according to his granddaughter Jackie. Like many inventions, the Greenwood earmuff was a great idea that needed some refinements. The first step was a change in materials. Chester decided to try flat spring steel, three-eighths of an inch wide, for the band. Two improvements resulted: the

new band enabled him to attach a tiny hinge to each ear flap so the muff could fit snugly against his ears. And the springy steel allowed him, when he was finished using the muff, to coil it flat and stuff the contraption in his pocket.

The result? Greenwood had an invention that took on a life of its own. Everyone, not 'just kids or people allergic to wool, had to have the Ear Protector. In the beginning, the popular muff sold in one style. "Like Henry Ford's auto, the Ear Protector came in any color you wanted as long as it was black," says grandson George. Chester seemed pretty satisfied with it. "I believe perfection has been reached," he stated in advertising his earmuff.

On March 13, 1877, the United States Patent Office awarded him patent #188,292. Greenwood was just eighteen years old at the time. Soon after, he established a factory in a brick building in West Farmington, a place he called The Shop. Later, Chester expanded to Front Street in downtown Farmington and had more than twenty full time employees turning out Ear Protectors on the second floor. In 1883, his factory was producing 30,000 muffs a year, and by 1936 the annual output had risen to 400,000.

When he died in 1937 at the age of seventy-nine, Greenwood was a Maine celebrity. In addition to running the muff business, Greenwood had been granted more than 130 patents. They included improvements on the spark plug, a decoy mouse trap called the Mechanical Cat, Chester's version of the shock absorber, a hook for pulling doughnuts from boiling oil, the Rubberless Rubber Band, and the Greenwood Tempered Steel Rake.

Curiously, even after Greenwood automated most of "The Shop", his muff business could not do without hands that could sew. There was only one way to attach fabric to the hinged flap, the way Gram had done it in the farm kitchen when they made the first model. Women and men in the area took the piecework home, and it spread as a cottage industry, an industry whose labor force is made up of people working at home. Chester’s kid invention, in its heyday, "supported half of Franklin County," according to one resident.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Young Inventors, A Class Act   from The Great Idea Finder
History of Apparel    from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Brainstorm!: The Stories of Twenty American Kid Inventors
by Tom Tucker, Richard Loehle / Paperback - 144 pages  / Sunburst (1998)
The stories of twenty ingenious young Americans who have filed patents with the United States Patent Office, including Chester Greenwood who invented ear muffs, Ralph Samuelson, originator of water-skiing, and Vanessa Hess who created colored car wax.

ON THE WEB:
Chester's Patent
Copy of the original drawings submitted to the United States Patent Office for the ear protector petent in 1877. An about site so expect lots of COOKIES.
(URL: inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blgreenwood.htm)

Chester Greenwood (1858 - 1937)
All about famous people from Maine, including Chester Greenwood.
(URL: www.state.me.us/sos/kids/allabout/people/c_greenwood.htm)
TWINKLE LIGHT STORIES
Kids page at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
(URL: www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ahrpa/opa/kids/special/twinktales.htm)
Kids Calendar
USPTO list of cool patents by the month.
(URL:
www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ahrpa/opa/kids/calendar/index.html
Earmuffs
Fron the Academy of Applied Science's Young Inventors' Program.
(URL: www.aas-world.org/youth_science/yip/inventors.html
)
The Kids Hall of Fame
When he returned to the pond, wearing the furry ovals on his ears, his friends laughed and teased him. But Chester had the last laugh. Long after his skating buddies were indoors, because of nearly frost bitten ears, Chester continued skating. His ears were warm!
Lots of COOKIES at this site.
(URL: www.thekidshalloffame.com/CustomPage8.html)
Chester Greenwood Day - December 21st
Chester Greenwood Day shall commemorate and honor Chester Greenwood, whose inventive genius and native ability, which contributed much to the enjoyment of Maine's winter season, marked him as one of Maine's outstanding citizens.
(URL: janus.state.me.us/legis/statutes/1/title1sec117.html)


WHERE TO FIND:
Revolutionary Ear Muffs
Many people wear them while skiing. They actually fit completely over your ear, forming a pocket. They then "pop" shut (hence, the name). It takes some trying to get them to fall off.
(URL: www.earpops.com/
)


DID YOU KNOW?:

  • At age 17, Greenwood applied for a patent. For the next 60 years, Greenwood's factory made earmuffs. Greenwood went on to create more than 100 other inventions.
  • Patent 188,292 (US) issued March 13, 1877 for Improvement In Ear-Mufflers
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised August 31, 2005.
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