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…”
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.