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Weather Almanac for December 2002
OF TOQUES AND EARMUFFS
Bitter cold arctic winds blow across a landscape recently dressed in a robe of snow crystals. No doubt: winter arrived last night, bursting the extended autumn glow. No delaying bringing out the winterwear ensemble now. I pull out The Box; it contains: gloves and mittens; scarves, toques, a balaclava or two, and a single pair of earmuffs. Emergent from the plastic garment bag, the down parka regains prominence in the closet hierarchy, the new alpha coat.
As is often the case when I am doing such routine work, my mind takes the opportunity to wander and wonder. What are the origins of these winter apparel? Do we know? Or are they apparel that evolved from amorphous body coverings with large gaps in the fossil records?
Cold weather clothing likely first draped human bodies when our prehistoric ancestors faced adverse chilling condition to their naked bodies. Whether this was in response to global climate changes or to migrations away from tropical homelands, we shall never know. From most estimates, the tailoring of animal skins for warmth and water protection that were relatively light and flexible compared to heavy animal robes began about forty to fifty thousand years ago.
We can see the evolution of pre-modern extreme winter gear in the traditional clothing of the native peoples of the Arctic. The Inuit people, for example, wore a two-layer ensemble with outer gear including over-leggings, heavy coat with hood a parka mittens and tall boots. Their inner garments were worn with the fur facing the body; the outer garments, usually of seal or caribou skin, were designed with the hair facing outward.
While some winter clothing evolved silently in antiquity, several have histories that sparked my interest as much as they warmed my body. Two were invented of necessity: one by a group of British women during wartime; the other by a Maine lad of fifteen. But my personal favourite is the toque.
Only gloves and mittens exceed in number the quantity of toques that grace my closet shelf as well as the pockets of many of my coats and jackets. After all, gloves/mittens are supposed to come in pairs though I seem to collect a substantial number of "widows."
The toque (also spelled tuque, particularly in French Canada, and pronounced two-k') is a knit, brimless cap of wool or some synthetic yarn and often adorned today with a pom-pom on top. When I was growing up in Illinois, they were known as stocking caps or wool caps, and their popularity rocketed in the US when one was the constant headgear of The Monkees' Michael Nesmith. I don't recall encountering the term toque until reaching Canada in 1971.
It appears that the toque has its origins in French Canada, a regular component of the Voyageurs' gear as they travelled the continent in search of beaver pelts. There is evidence of a precursor species in Europe from the 12th or 13th century, small caps made of a tight weave or solid material, much like the Jewish yarmulke, but providing more head coverage.
Some etymologists trace the name to the old Spanish word toca, a type of soft, close-fitted cap; others give it a Celtic origin, but the respected Québecois historian Séguin considers the word's roots to be French Canadian, as it is not found in old French dictionaries.
An early reference can be found in the accounts of Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm, who observed during his North American travels that toque colours varied with the district: blue in Montréal; red in the Québec district; and white in the Trois-Rivières district. By the nineteenth century, the toque was the chosen winter headgear for francophone farmers in Lower Canada.
The Balaclava Story
The balaclava, warm woolen hood covering the head and neck, has a more definite history to relate. During the Crimean War (1854-56), British, French and Turkish troops battled the Russians in southwestern Crimea, an island-like peninsula along the northern shore of the Black Sea and currently part of the Ukraine. Fighting around the Russian village of Balaklava, known for the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, the Allied forces eventually captured the village just as the winter set in. Balaclava was thus established as the Allied winter base. Because of the harse weather conditions, the Allied activities were therefore restricted to siege operations. During the winter of 1854/55, thousands of men died from illness, exposure and malnutrition as the troops suffered from hunger and cold in the frigid temperatures of Russian winter.
In support of their field troops, British women back home designed and made warm clothing including special hoods that covered the head, neck and shoulders. These warm, woolen hoods were eventually named for the army's winter headquarters: balaclava.
Today, balaclavas are worn by many engaged in outdoor winter work and play. (They are also favoured for clandestine operations such as bank-robbing and movie spies.) A marriage of toque and balaclava provides a headgear which can be worn as a conventional toque or unfolded to provide a balaclava face and neck cover in addition to the head covering.
A Youngster's Dilemma
The last piece of winterwear I want to discuss is my least favourite: the earmuff. While I applaud and embrace the concept, I have never found a pair that I was comfortable wearing (compared to a toque or the intermediate headband).
The earmuff story began one cold winter day in December 1873 when young Chester Greenwood of Farmington, Maine walked to nearby Abbot Pond to try out a new pair of ice skates. But the below-zero Fahrenheit temperature, compounded by the air rushing by as he skated, nipped at the fifteen-year-old's ears, sending him quickly home.
Chester was unable to wear the conventional headscarf most kids wrapped about their ears; his ears itched fiercely under the touch of wool. Determined to conquer the cold and yet avoid the unbearable itch, Chester sought his Gram and asked her to help him fashion a more comfortable cold shield for his ears. In the farmhouse kitchen, they worked on a concept that would launch a successful life for Greenwood. The initial device didn't take long to assemble. The ear protectors, as Greenwood would initially call them, were outstandingly simple.
First, he tried stringing a wire through a pair of socks, perhaps unknowingly inventing a pre-elastic headband, but this felt awkward and tended to slip off the ears. His next prototype required some bendable metal material, two pads of soft insulating material, and his grandmother's sewing skills. For the ear shields, Chester decided on a combination of beaver fur on the outside and black velvet for the inner surface which would rest against the ear. To hold the shields onto the head, he selected a soft, thin wire known as farm wire, a precursor of baling wire, and using a pair of pliers fashioned the wire into ear-shaped loops.
The design didn't take long to assemble. After a few minutes of work, had a finished product. When he returned to the pond, he wore the furry shields over his ears. (Some accounts suggest the initial ear protector was attached to his cap.) Now, while Chester skated, his ears were warm!
[Later, when Chester Greenwood's story had become a legend, writers would claim that his ears turned weird colours when exposed to the cold. The Wall Street Journal, for example, published an article which stated "Chester Greenwood's ears were so sensitive that they turned chalky white, beet red, and deep blue (in that order) when the mercury dipped." But according to Greenwood's descendants, there was nothing wrong with Chester's ears. "Just cold," corrects grandson George Greenwood, "Big and cold."]
The other children laughed at Greenwood at first and teased him over his unconventional earwear. But it was he who would have the last laugh. Before long, the local kids started pestering their parents and grandparents to make them a pair, and soon his ear protectors were the rage in Farmington and surrounding area. So by the following winter, at the tender age of 16, Chester Greenwood began to mass produce his Greenwood Champion Ear Protector, as he called them.
Despite the community's enthusiasm over the initial design, Chester himself wasn't satisfied. The first model "flapped too much," according to his granddaughter Jackie. The great idea needed some refinement. Greenwood decided to change the material for the headband, trying a flat, three-eighths inch-wide piece of spring steel. With this new band, he was able to add a novel addition to the earmuff: a hinge. By attaching a tiny hinge to each ear piece, the muff would now fit snugly against the ears. Using the springy steel provided another important feature. When the wearer was finished using the earmuffs, they would coil flat, allowing the assembly to easily fit into a pocket.
Diagram for improved Ear Mufflers, US Patent #188292
On March 13, 1877, the United States Patent Office awarded patent #188,292 "Improvement in Ear Mufflers" to Greenwood, he was just eighteen years old at the time. With the improvements, the invention born of necessity took on a whole new life. Everyone, not just those sensitive to wool, had to have a pair. Shortly thereafter, Greenwood opened the Greenwood's Ear Protector Factory, which he operated for 60 years, making Farmington, Maine the Earmuff Capital of the World.
The factory Greenwood called "The Shop" was originally housed in a brick building in West Farmington. There he not only constructed the earmuffs, but invented the machines to manufacture them. Later, he expanded to a site on Front Street in downtown Farmington, employing more than twenty workers. In 1883, his factory produced 30,000 units a year.
Curiously, though Greenwood automated most of his earmuff business, he could not do without hands that could sew. As his Gram had done in that farm kitchen in 1873, there was only one way to attach the fabric to the hinged flap, by hand. Therefore, across Franklin County, a supporting cottage industry sprang up as local women and men took the piecework home.
Initially, the popular Greenwood Champion Ear Protector sold in but one style. "Like Henry Ford's auto, the Ear Protector came in any color you wanted as long as it was black," remembers his grandson George. Greenwood made his fortune supplying his Ear Protectors to the American military during World War I. By 1936, a year before his death, the Greenwood plant's annual output had risen to 400,000 pairs.
Chester Greenwood was by no means a "one-idea wonder." By the time of his death at age 79, he would be credited with over 130 patents, including the whistling tea kettle, improvements on the spark plug, a shock absorber, a hook for pulling doughnuts from boiling oil, the Rubberless Rubber Band, and the Greenwood Tempered Steel Rake. The Smithsonian Institute would hale him as one of the top American inventors of the Twentieth Century.
In 1977, Maine's legislature declared December 21 Chester Greenwood Day to honour Maine's native son and his contribution to cold weather protection. The Act reads: "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 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."
Chester Greenwood Day is also celebrated on the first Saturday in December, (the 7th in 2002), in Farmington, Maine. The Earmuff Capital of the World holds an annual earmuff-theme parade to celebrate Chester's birthday that features anything that can either wear or be disguised as earmuffs. The parade has, in the past, included police cruisers decorated as giant earmuffs, cows, and other livestock and a yellow school bus sporting a giant pair of earmuffs. At the end of the parade, actors portraying Mr and Mrs Greenwood award prizes to the best parade participants.
Apparently Greenwood never felt the need to improve his original patent design, stating in early product advertising: "I believe perfection has been reached." But others have not thought so.
Particularly, Norwegian Tom Natvig. While living in Sweden, Natvig returned home to attend the 1994 winter Olympics in Lillehammer. It was terribly cold so he decided to buy some form of earwarmer with a band over the head to avoid wearing the Nordic luva. Natvig explains: "I am a vain man, Iīm afraid, and if I can avoid to wear an unflattering hat or a silly luva I choose not to." But none of the downtown shops had heard of what he had in mind: an earmuff that one placed over the ears.
"Thatīs when I first thought of manufacturing a new kind of earmuff," he recalls. "A product which should be easy to put on, stay in place and be both stylish and modern." So was born the Earbags which warm the ears without overheating the head and don't itch like most headbands. "The trade name Earbags popped up in my head looking at the steering wheel during my eight hours ride back home to Sweden where it said 'Airbag,'" he admits.
This patented ear-held ear warmer actually fits completely over your ear, forming a pocket. Rather than using a band, they are pressed onto the ears by pushing the rim using only the fingertips. They then snap shut and hold on even when active, such as while skiing. The soft double-layer fleece covers create a fashionable look that will keep ears warm while eliminating the static and dreaded hat hair caused by hats, headbands and traditional earmuffs.
Earbags proved a hit at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Today, they are well established on the world market, selling more than 600,000 to date.
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