FARMINGTON — At 16 degrees, with a hint of snow in the air, it was a good day for earmuffs.
Hundreds of people lined Main Street Saturday to watch the 36th annual Chester Greenwood Day parade roll slowly past, and many were dressed for the occasion, sporting bright-colored earmuffs in recognition of Farmington’s most notable son.
Nearly 140 years ago, Chester Greenwood invented earmuffs at the age of 15. Four years later, he received a patent for them. Then, at age 28, the inventor turned manufacturer, cranking out pair after pair of Champion Ear Protectors at the Chester Greenwood & Co. factory downtown, where, in 1936, the company produced 400,000 during its biggest year.
The popularity of earmuffs has since waned. Nowadays, Renys on Broadway is one of the few downtown locations where earmuffs are still sold. And, although the popularity of earmuffs has dwindled substantially since their heyday, they still sell briskly once a year, and people still wear them throughout Maine’s coldest season.
On Tuesday, Renys received a shipment of about 750 earmuffs, said store manager Tom Burr. By noon Saturday, about 350 had been purchased. Burr said the annual celebration is responsible for most of the store’s earmuff sales, but not all. Customers will continue to buy them throughout the season, he said.
“There are still people who just like earmuffs,” he said.
Chester Greenwood Day is a boon to the downtown shops. The event is held on the first Saturday of December, and the increased foot traffic translates into increased sales for the Christmas shopping season, almost like a second Black Friday, Burr said.
Meanwhile, two seniors from the University of Maine at Farmington browsed Burr’s store. One student was already wearing a pair of Greenwood’s invention; the other was searching for her own pair. Renys offers two styles — fuzzy or knitted — and the colors tend toward a feminine palette of pink, purple and white. They ranged in price from $2.99 to $16.99.
Kaisha Muchemore, 21, of Portmouth, N.H., said there was a simple reason for buying a pair.
“It’s Earmuff Day and it’s cold,” she said.
Her friend, Sarah Spencer, 21, of Dresden, sported a red pair that matched her red-leather gloves and boots. During the past three celebrations, she has worn the same pair — a gift from her father when she left home for her first year at Farmington.
“I tend to only wear them on this day, because it’s a little hard to hear when you wear them,” she said, smiling.
Spencer said earmuffs are most commonly worn in Farmington on the first Saturday in December, but she sees them throughout winter. They are more popular among college students in Farmington than elsewhere in the state, or the country, she believes.
“I definitely think they’re still practical, and they’re also cute,” she said.
Greenwood’s great-great-granddaughter, Sandy Greenwood-Thomas, 54, of Cumberland, said the popularity of earmuffs exploded during World War I, when the U.S. government commissioned thousands of army-green pairs for its troops. Their popularity grew again when Greenwood began producing different colored slip-ons, so owners could coordinate a single pair with many different outfits.
By World War II, however, production declined in the face of U.S. steel shortages, and their popularity waned until the mid-1970s, with the advent of plastic headbands, Greenwood-Thomas said.
“They keep coming and going in style and popularity,” she said.
Ben McCanna — 861-9239