New Hampshire Slanguage: Muffler

Illustration of muffler styles from Shakespeare's time, from "Illustrations of Shakspeare, and of Ancient Manners with Disserations," by Francis Douce.

Illustration of muffler styles from Shakespeare’s time, from “Illustrations of Shakspeare, and of Ancient Manners with Disserations,” by Francis Douce.

Before the automobile was invented, the term muffler was an entirely different item than a metal tail pipe. It  was, instead, an object of clothing, worn to keep dust, dirt, or the extremes of sun and cold from the mouth and face. Though commonly thought interchangeable with the common neck scarf, the muffler was specific to covering the nose, mouth, and chin.

The word is an old English one, in common use in Shakespeare’s time (he died in 1616). The ‘muffler‘ is mentioned in his Merry Wives of Windsor that he published in 1602.

In the reign of Charles I (1625-1649) it was common for the ladies to wear masks which covered the eyebrows and nose, holes being left for the eyes. Sometimes, but not always, the mouth was covered, and the chin guarded with a sort of muffler then called a chin-cloth; these were chiefly used to keep off the sun.
The use of the word, muffler, was brought to the New World with the European colonists. On 9 January 1779, Oliver Ellsworth, a delegate to the new American congress wrote to Abigail Ellsworth, stating (in part) “Was you to see me this night, in the scituation I am, with a beard a week old, with the cape of my great Coat buttoned about my ears, & a large muffler of Baize across my nose & mouth, I am sure you would not give me a kiss…”

Drawing. Merry Wives of Windsor, costume design, Falstaff by T. Komisarjevsky, 1935, pencil and pastel on paper. Part of LDI project: Russian Theatrical Designs in the Harvard Theater. Gift of Ernestine Stodelle Komisarjevsky Chamberlain, 1957. Inscription: " ...Flastaff in disguise...light silk muffler." Harvard Theatre Collection.

Drawing. Merry Wives of Windsor, costume design, Falstaff by T. Komisarjevsky, 1935, pencil and pastel on paper. Part of LDI project: Russian Theatrical Designs in the Harvard Theater. Gift of Ernestine Stodelle Komisarjevsky Chamberlain, 1957. Inscription: ” …Flastaff in disguise…light silk muffler.” Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

A notice in a newspaper of July 29, 1806 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser) stated “In addition to this, painters, plumers, manufacturers of white lead, and grinders of colours, ought to be provided with a suitable mask or muffler, to guard the mouth and nostrils, as I have elsewhere hinted.”

Once you spend at least one cold and windy winter in New England, you will fully understand why covering the face might be important. Vermonters and Mainites, in addition to New Hampshiremen (and women), still embrace the practical use of the muffler, and continue to use that term to describe it.

“WAIT & TABOR. Have just received a great variety of white, black, and figured satin stocks, bombazine stocks, satin ties, twilled and Italian silk cravats, fur collars, tippets, mufflers, and muffs…..” [Burlington Weekly Free Press, Burlington VT 2 Nov 1838 Friday page 4]

CASSIMERE MUFFLERS AND COCKNEY CRAVATS for sale [Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, Bangor Maine 19 Nov 1838 page 1].

Oh and before you write to me, saying that the term was used elsewhere–why yes, it was. In Philadelphia PA it was popular from the earliest times (perhaps to keep out the dust, dirt and bad odors of that place) and also North Carolina, and a few other rare locations. It Just the folks from New Hampshire hold the muffler to be near and dear (and warm), and continue to use it up to today. The rest of the country can say “scarf” all it wishes.

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4 Responses to New Hampshire Slanguage: Muffler

  1. Amy says:

    I still hear that term used for a scarf sometimes in New England. And that description of the early muffler sounds an awful lot like the burqas worn now by some Muslim women. What goes around comes around!

  2. Great post! I am familiar with the term living in NH all my life. Thanks for the background. Interesting!

  3. Sharon Wood says:

    I grew up in CT & have always used the term muffler too. No NH connection in my family before my move here, so it had to come to me from somewhere else in New England.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Sharon, thank you for reading and responding! Much of the “slanguage” that I write about is not exclusive to New Hampshire, but just a word that is still used here that is archaic now in most other places. No doubt other spots in New England (and in fact, Philadelphia PA as shown in my article) also used this term. It was just not widespread. It is beyond my ability to show a word map of how terms were first used and how they spread. I can only write based on my own experience, and having traveled realizing that other locales do not use the same terms to describe things! 😀

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