Tuesday, 20 December 2016
I'm All Ears: Chester Greenwood's Icy Invention
He owned a bicycle shop, was an accomplished machinist and a father of four. He patented a tea kettle and a machine used to produce wooden spools for wire and thread. He invented an umbrella holder, a mechanical mouse trap, a doughnut hook, a spark plug, a wide-bottom kettle and a folding bed. By the time of his death of July 5, 1937, he had over one hundred patents in his name... and the most famous of them all was invented while he was skating.
The son of Zina Hyde Greenwood and Emily Merrill Fellows, Chester Greenwood was born December 4, 1858 in Farmington, Maine. As a boy, he was always industrious. He walked door to door selling eggs from his family's laying hens and even made his own candies and sold them to friends. By the time he was a teenager, he had invented an ear protector which we know today as the earmuff.
The December 26, 1977 issue of "The Evening Independent" shared the story that has been made famous in Greenwood's hometown for years: "It happened back in the winter of 1873 when Chester was just a tall, lanky lad of 15. For Christmas he got a pair of skates - his first pair, and fancy ones at that. They had double blades and straps to keep them on his leather boots. The story in Farmington is that young Chester raced down to the pond to skate. His head was covered by a cap, his hands were warm in his mittens, and his toes were snug in thick wool socks. But alas, his ears - those delicate things - were bare. After just one whirl on the pond his ears began to freeze. They turned a chalky white. And then a brilliant red. Poor Chester could not take it and lit off for home... The next day he tried again - determined to use his new skates. He wrapped his ears in a good wool scarf and set off for the pond. But soon the wool began to itch. And itch. And Chester scratched. And scratched. Again young Chester could not take it and took off for home. But he was determined. He found some wire in the barn and twisted it into hoops. He found some patches of fur and got his grandmother to sew them on. And - voila - Chester Greenwood had earmuffs and could skate to his heart's content." This tale has become oral tradition in Farmington, embellished upon and altered endlessly to make good copy by 'serious journalists' over the years. His family attests the whole frostbite bit was a myth added for dramatic effect and that his ears were just "big and cold". The skating part, however? No folklore there at all.
After some tweaking of the invention, Greenwood applied for a patent. On March 13, 1877, the United States Patent Office awarded him patent number 188,292 for his "Improvement In Ear-Mufflers". In no time, a factory in his hometown produced tens of thousands of pairs of Greenwood Champion Ear Protectors. By 1886, a newspaper from as far away as Springfield, Illinois was raving that the invention was "in lively demand". His best customers? Postal workers. Through the factory, which operated twenty four hours a day in its heyday, Greenwood provided jobs for many local women. It was fitting, as Greenwood and his wife Isabel were staunch supporters of the women's suffrage movement.
By the time of his death, hundreds of thousands of Greenwood's ear-warming invention were being produced and were, of course, incredibly popular with skaters. Farmington became known as the earmuff capital of the world. Amusingly, in a December 20, 2002 interview in the "Bangor Daily News" descendant Sully Greenwood lamented, "We were never allowed to call them earmuffs. They're ear protectors, not muffs. Even the box says ear protectors. Now they call them muffs, muffs, muffs. Probably can't spell 'ear protectors.'"
In 1977 - one hundred years after Greenwood patented the ear muff - the Maine Legislature proclaimed that "December 21st of each year shall be designated as Chester Greenwood Day and the Governor shall annually issue a proclamation inviting and urging the people of the State of Maine to observe this day in suitable places with appropriate ceremony and activity. Chester Greenwood Day shall commemorate and honour 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." The citizens of Farmington have celebrated Chester Greenwood Day over the years with parades, ice cream sculpting contests, look-alike contests, polar bear dips, speeches and skating parties sporting - you guessed it - earmuffs.
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