The Not Earmuffs

At present, the catalog records for the Historic Fashion Collection are less than perfect. Most of the records from the past 20 years or so are fine, but that only makes up a small fraction of the collection.  Most of the records were originally created as part of a physical card catalog.  These were then typed into our current database without the original object being reexamined.

Now, this made a great deal of sense at the time.  Having a complete database of objects with brief records is way, way better than not having the catalog digitized at all.  However, that does occasionally lead to odd things popping up in the records.

So, as I work on the condition survey, I’ve been correcting some of the most obvious errors.  This also means I’ve gotten into the habit of taking everything in the catalog with a grain of salt.

At the same time, I try not to make assumptions about anything I find.  While I know a great deal about historic garments, I don’t know everything!  I need to be able to back up anything I change with some evidence.

This c1850 hair ornament (3385.92C) is a great example of the sort of issues I’ve run into.

When I pulled up the record I found this note:

Note on card says, “Listed on old card as ‘ear muffs with tassels” these should be checked when found, as there is some doubt that these are ear muffs at all.

The first thing I did to solve this mystery is look up when earmuffs were invented.  With a  quick bit of googling I found that the first patent for the product was issued in the 1870s, but that they had existed before that.1  I couldn’t 100% eliminate the earmuff option based on that information alone.

The next step was to check out the catalogs of other museums to see if there was anything similar.  I wasn’t able to find anything at the first few places I checked, however, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston had exactly what I was looking for.  There were two different examples, both named “hair ornament.”2,3  

At this point I was pretty confident that this object was not a pair of earmuffs, but since I always like to have more than one source I took a look at what the Metropolitan Museum of Art had in its digital catalog.  It took me a little while to find what I was looking for because the MET uses “headdress” instead of “hair ornament,” “headband,” or any of the other keywords I tried first.  Once I got the search terms right, I found two more good examples.4,5

This was enough for me to correct the catalog record and add my own note:

Old record incorrectly identified these was c1880 earmuffs.  The record has been correctly updated to reflect that this is actually a c1850 hair ornament.  May also be cataloged as “headpiece” or “headdress.”

Now, the mystery has been solved and everything has been documented!

1. Lipman, Don. “The Story of the Modern-day Earmuff and Its Inventor, Chester Greenwood.” The Washington Post. March 02, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.

2. Woman’s Headdress. Mid-19th Century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession number 51.376.

3. Hair Ornament.  Mid-19th Century.  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Accession number 53.2245.

4. Headdress. 1859-60.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Accession number 37.144.8.

5. Headdress.  1856.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Accession number C.I.53.72.21.



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