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
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
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
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
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 think?
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