The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The story of the modern-day earmuff and its inventor, Chester Greenwood

For the last 39 years in the state of Maine, the first day of winter has also been known as Chester Greenwood Day, in honor of the man (boy, at the time) who invented the modern-day earmuff in 1873.

To mark the occasion, the first Saturday in December (a day possibly selected because it doesn’t conflict with holiday  celebrations and is less likely to be snowy), the town of Farmington (Chester’s boyhood home) holds their annual “Earmuff Parade” in his honor.

As described recently by Kevin Ambrose in his  post on the history of ice skating in America, the sport was a very popular outdoor winter pastime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when, on average, winters were considerably colder.  As an avid ice skater at age 15, Chester (12/4/1858 – 7/5/1937) took full advantage of the local frozen ponds whenever he could.

Unfortunately, in the cold winters of southwestern Maine, Chester found that he couldn’t skate for long for two reasons: his ears would get frostbitten more easily than others; and he was allergic to the protective wool caps with ear coverings that were, at the time, typically used as ear protectors.

The Wall Street Journal would later say that “Greenwood’s ears were so sensitive that they turned chalky white, beet red, and deep blue (in that order) when the mercury dipped.” But  Greenwood’s descendants dispute this, saying that Chester’s ears were just “big and cold.”

To solve the problem, Chester had an idea, one on which his grandmother would leave her mark and one which would eventually help his entire family prosper. He asked her to sew little flannel pads or beaver fur (disputed) onto the circular ends of a wire ring that would wrap around his head. Although initially, Chester’s friends made fun of his strange ear protectors, they soon realized that the little pads served a real purpose and it wasn’t long before almost everybody was wearing them.

Over the next few years, Chester made many improvements to the protectors, so that eventually the wire was replaced by bands, the pads became hinged for greater pressure against the ear, and they were given portability.

Within 10 years, Chester built a small factory near Farmington which employed 11 workers, producing 50,000 pair of protectors in 1883.  He never forgot the way his grandmother attached the flannel (now velvet) pads to the first head wire. As a result, although the protectors were now primarily machine-made, Chester still employed local women to do the hand-stitching at home, just the way he remembered it was done during his childhood.

By the time World War I broke out, Chester’s factory was providing earmuffs to thousands of overseas troops and by the time he died in 1937, the plant was producing 400,000 pairs of earmuffs per year.

Although he is regarded as the originator of the modern-day earmuff, like so many other inventions and innovations, Chester Greenwood wasn’t necessarily the first to make them.  According to patent agent Dennis Haszko, of the Eaton Peabody law firm, “There were earmuffs prior to that…it wasn’t the first earmuff. It was [just] an improved one….what he actually patented was an earmuff component consisting of a metal band with a v-shaped hinge on either side that swiveled with the ear……it was just that swivel hinge that made Chester’s ‘Champion Ear Protectors’ a better product.”

As a sidelight, Haszko goes on to say that if such a patent were sought today, it would be far more difficult, expensive, and time consuming than it was 143 years ago.  For example, Chester’s patent “was two pages long and included two simple diagrams…the modern earmuff patent application consists of 31 pages of diagrams, some very complex, and dozens of pages of text,” according to  Yes, there are still those seeking patents on newer versions of earmuffs.

Chester went on to invent many other products.  According to the Maine Memory Network, during his 60 year career making earmuffs, he also: became an accomplished machinist; ran a bicycle shop; sold “Florida Boilers;” owned and operated Franklin Telephone & Telegraph; and invented almost 100 home and industrial devices, some of which he patented.

Current forecasts lead me to believe that Chester Greenwood’s invention might come in handy on Friday, with snow in the forecast.