The blast of cold weather in St. Louis led me to find all my winter gear. That reminded me of Meghan McCarthy’s book Earmuffs for Everyone. Reading the book led me on a hunt for primary sources in the form of patents, something new for me and my students.
Earmuffs for Everyone gives an account of Chester Greenwood who is attributed with inventing earmuffs or at least the steel band that kept them fitted on the head. It also, with patents as a backdrop, looks at solutions others came up with to keep ears warm. The book also explores other inventions patented by Chester Greenwood and explains what a patent is.
Searching for Patents as Primary Sources
With patents being such a strong underpinning for this book, it seemed like a natural fit to use the actual patents as primary sources. This was a format of primary source that I had not used before. Starting at the US Patent and Trademark Office, I realized that to search for patents prior to 1976 I needed the actual patent number. Not having that, I turned to Google Patents for my initial search. Searches for “ear protection,” “ear muffs,” and “Chester Greenwood” led me to original images of patent designs. Listed on those original images was the patent number. That allowed me to return to my original search where I could also find the full patent including the original description of the patented item.
Finding patents that matched images in the book as well as other patents for ear protection from the same time period, I was able to curate a set of primary sources that could be used to extend the learning from the book.
Pairing the Picture Book and Patents
There are many ways these patents could be used with Earmuffs for Everyone focusing on primary sources, literacy, and STEM activities. Students can begin by reading the book or having the book read to them. This gives them valuable background about patents and makes viewing the primary sources much easier. Students will likely also enjoy making connections between the illustrations in McCarthy’s book and the patent drawings.
After reading the book, students activities could vary depending on age, learning focus, reading ability, time, or additional available resources. They could include:
- Students describe or write how they think the invention works or, in this case, should be worn or put on by viewing the patent drawing.
- Viewing only the written specifications for the patent (clicking on the link to drawing and then looking at the navigation bar on the left of the web page), creating a drawing of the earmuffs or ear protection based on the written description.
- Chester Greenwood’s patent was actually an improvement on existing earmuffs. Students can brainstorm how a invention shown in a patent could be improved upon, especially based on new technology. For example, instead of clasps and buckles, velcro may make some devices more comfortable and easier to wear.
- Several patents in the curated set are actually part of a hat. Redesign the invention based on hats typically worn today.
- Create a prototype of the invention based on the visual and written description. Depending on what materials and tools you have, this could be part of a makerspace activity or collaboration with an art teacher. If creating a prototype, try wearing it outside. How does that impact your feeling about the device?
However students learn with the patents as inspiration and the picture book providing entertaining background context, they can be creative and challenged in their thinking.
Author: Tom Bober
Tom Bober is an elementary librarian at RM Captain Elementary in Clayton, Missouri, a former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and a Digital Public Library of America Community Rep. He has written about the use of primary sources in classrooms in School Library Connection, Social Education magazine, and the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. Tom also presents at regional and national conferences, runs workshops, and has developed and presented webinars for the Library of Congress and ABC Clio on a variety of strategies and topics for students’ use of primary sources in the classroom.