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Did "Earl Mitt" even exist at all? I first heard this story from an answer to this English Language and Usage Stack Exchange question about oven mitts/oven gloves.

Earlier today, the story was in Wikipedia, but it has since been removed; perhaps by someone else who saw the answer I linked to and who was also suspicious of it. Here is the earlier version of the Wikipedia article "Oven Glove", which said:

Oven gloves were invented by Earl Mitt of Austin, Texas, in the early 1870s. He was a frequent baker of Gugelhupf cakes and permanently disfigured his left hand in a baking accident. To prevent further injury to himself, and the injuries of the many generations to come, he crafted a rudimentary oven "mitt" made of wool and shoe leather. He slowly refined his design over the years, experimenting with various arrangements of finger compartments and different insulating materials.

There are also lots of other sites where this claim is repeated (some of them probably learned this bit of fun trivia from Wikipedia), some with minor details changed. Here are some examples: [1], [2], [3].

The story really smells fishy to me (like a less amusing version of the story that the word "crap" comes from Thomas Crapper's name), but I haven't found evidence to disprove it yet.

The first thing I tried to do was find an example of the phrase "oven mitt" being used (with its modern meaning) before the 1870s, the purported date of invention. I tried searching Google Books for the word "oven mitt," but I didn't find anything from before the 1870s. The Google Books Ngram Viewer records no uses of "oven mitt" before 1940.

The word "mitt" by itself, meaning basically "glove," has been attested for longer (as Nate Eldredge states in the comments). However, this doesn't by itself show that "Earl Mitt" did not invent the term and concept of the "oven mitt" in particular; for example, see the following comment from ELU:

Oh, I wouldn't doubt that there was some double meaning intended, but the fact that the inventor's name is Earl Mitt is most definitely a factor in the naming.

So, I haven't found evidence that the name "oven mitt" predates the purported inventor; but other people may have access to other resources, or be able to think of better methods of refuting (or possibly, confirming!) this story. Can you help me learn the truth about this?

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    The OED's first citation for mitt as something to wear on the hand is dated 1757, and the sense of "mitten" goes to 1812. So if Earl Mitt did name the oven mitt after himself, it was a coincidence that his name was already in use as the word for such objects. Oct 1, 2015 at 22:53
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    I edited the article to remove the origin section after seeing the ELU question. Made no sense to me and it had been unreferenced since 2013. There's a thread with more details on the talk page, feel free to drop in.
    – isanae
    Oct 1, 2015 at 22:57
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    I'm very dubious of this claim. Aside from the apparent lack of references to this Earl Mitt, gloves have been around for centuries - is it really likely that it wasn't until the 1870s that someone thought of using a thick leather glove to pick up something hot? Now if the claim was that Earl Mitt was the first to start marketing a glove for this purpose it would sound more plausible to me.
    – Eborbob
    Oct 2, 2015 at 10:56
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    The oldest document Google knows about with the name Earl Mitt contains slightly different version of your quote, from May 14, 2013.
    – Flimzy
    Oct 10, 2015 at 21:10
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    There is also a US Patent for a "Baker's Safety Glove" dated 1944, and an earlier patent for a 5-fingered version in 1939. There also aren't any patents by an Earl Mitt at all, and only a couple of mitten-related patents by anyone in the 1870s, and they don't relate to baking or heat protection.
    – Flimzy
    Oct 10, 2015 at 21:36

2 Answers 2

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I found some evidence (all of which points very strongly against any "Earl Mitt") and assembled a timeline:

  • 1757: Mitt (a clipping of "mitten" with the same meaning) is first attested in a letter by W. Provoost in Beekman Mercantile Papers (OED).
  • 1918: "Oven mitt" is used in The Ogden standard: "Oven mitts are another great luxury for the house wife. They are just what the name implies, a pair of asbestos lined mitts of ticking or canvas or cretonne, joined by tape."
  • 1923: A "baking glove" is patented: "My invention relates to a glove for protecting a person's hand when cooking, baking or handling hot dishes." While patent searches are not my area of expertise, I could not find anything earlier, not even when looking through Google's list of related patents. This was also the first instance of "baking glove" I could find.
  • 1937: I found "oven glove" in Report by the Council for Art and Industry. (OED has oven glove from 1942 in the Times (London)*.)
  • 1942: I found "oven mitt" in Business Promotion. (OED has oven mitt from 1946 in the New York Times*.)
  • Never: There's not a single result for "earl mitt" in Google Books or Elephind (except for a couple OCR errors — so few you can check all of them yourself).

* Both of these dates are from their "oven" entry, which was last updated in 2004. This means they had some good tools for this type of research, but not what we have nearly 20 years later thanks to larger archives and better OCR. Therefore, it's not surprising that slightly earlier examples can be found, though with Google Books you do have to double and triple check the date since that's computer generated. (This is my area of expertise.)

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  • Elephid says it covers the Chronicling America database, but if you search directly in Chronicling America there are at least two issues of the Denison Review (2 March 1910, page 5 for example) chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84038095/1910-03-02/ed-1/… that mention a supposed "Earl Mitt". I think his real full name was "Herbert Earl Mitts" from census and cemetery data though. Just saying don't trust Elephid too much.
    – DavePhD
    Sep 6, 2023 at 18:24
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Gloves to protect from heat are much older than the 1870s date in the claim.

For example, in the 01 February 1830 Gazette of Health (vol. XV, No. 170, page 844) is the article "Preservation of the Human Body from Destruction by Fire" which credits Chevalier Aldini as inventing double layer asbestos gloves to handle hot objects.

There is also a follow up article in the 01 May 1830 issue. Carrying red hot iron bars using the gloves was demonstrated.

Chevalier Aldini's asbestos gloves were described in many other journals and were very well known.

In French, see Aldini's 1830 book Art de se preśerver de l'action de la flamme. The gloves (mittens actually) are illustrated in Figs. 11 and 12 in the plates at the end of the book.

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