Lunch Muff

by Sarah Cunningham, 1882

Inventor

  • NAMESarah A. Cunningham
  • PATENTUS255420A
  • DATEMarch 28, 1882
  • LOCATIONPatented in the USA – inventor residing in New York
  • INVENTION“Lunch Receptacle and Muff”
  • THEMEWorking
BIO —

Sarah Cunningham (previously Moody), held four different patents: two for corsets, one for a water-heated muff, and also the one we have researched here. We don’t have many details to work with (as yet), but we think she was a corset manufacturer based in New York City.

Invention

PROBLEM —

Cunningham addresses a small and mundane, yet common problem for many working women at the turn of the century. “In large cities and manufacturing towns where ladies are employed as shop-girls, sewing-girls, sales-women, and the like,” she explains, “it is an important desideratum to carry a noonday-lunch with them to their places of business, and to afford means to do this most conveniently and with the greatest amount of comfort is the object of my invention.” These kinds of jobs were likely lowly paid and long. Some workers may have been required to open a shop at dawn and close at night. They would have little time to themselves in between. Carrying their own lunch would have been convenient economically necessary.

SOLUTION —

Food, drinks and hands can all be placed inside Cunningham’s lunch receptacle and muff. There is a removable receptacle for liquids such as tea or coffee, which can be placed on a heater to warm the contents. If warmed and then placed within the muff, this will also serve to keep the wearer’s hands warm. A compartment on the other side has a door through which food can be placed. These two receptacles are covered and lined, with a quilted fabric, and secured together by a covering or hinges along the top edge. The lower edges are also connected with the fabric so as to allow space for hands to be placed inside the muff in the gap between the receptacles.

“In the present device I propose to afford means not only for carrying different articles of food by themselves, but also means for carrying tea or coffee, the heat of which serves to keep the hands of the wearer warm during the passage.”
— Sarah Cunningham, inventor
More quotes from Sarah Cunningham's patent

“My invention relates to a combined lunch-receptacle and muff; and the novelty consists in the construction, combination, and adaptation of parts.”

Sarah Cunningham1882

“In large cities and manufacturing towns where ladies are employed as shop-girls, sewing-girls, sales-women, and the like it is an important desideratum to carry a noonday-lunch with them to their places of business, and to afford means to do this most convent and with the greatest amount of comfort is the object of my invention.”

Sarah Cunningham1882

“In the present device I propose to afford means not only for carrying different articles of food by themselves, but also means for carrying tea or coffee, the heat of which serves to keep the hands of the wearer warm during the passage. The receptacle for the liquid may be removable, in order that the contents during the lunching-hour.”

Sarah Cunningham1882

“The device as an entirety is compact and neat, may be ornamental to suit different tastes, and manufactured at prices to suit all classes.”

Sarah Cunningham1882
Speculatively Sewing Sarah Cunningham's invention

Muffs have been popular wearables since the sixteenth century. They are mostly known as cylindrical-shaped objects designed to keep hands warm. They could be hung with a cord around the neck or from the waist, like a conventional châtelaine, and often contained hidden pockets. An 1882 English newspaper article explained their multi-usability:

“For outdoor wear, nothing seems so safe as the pockets in muffs, which though invisible, hold a great deal – card case, purse, and handkerchief.”

— Feminine Fashions & Fancies, The Newcastle Weekly Courant, 1882.

Cunngham’s invention in the form of a “Lunch Receptacle and Muff” greatly exaggerates the idea of hidden pockets. She explains: “I propose to afford means not only for carrying different articles of food by themselves, but also means for carrying tea or coffee, the heat of which serves to keep the hands of the wearer warm during the passage.” This clever design comes apart to offer even more options. “The receptacle for the liquid may be removable,” writes Cunningham, “in order that it may be placed upon the heater, stove, or the like to heat the contents during the lunching-hour.”

We first made a paper mockup of this invention to ascertain the scale. We sized it according to how two hands would fit into the centre and then added the hidden side pockets to the triangular frame. We used a combination of cardboard and thick grey felt for the frame. The inside padded areas were made of calico and cotton stuffing. We covered the entire thing with calico flaps. Apart from the padded interior, the invention was mostly hand-stitched.

We were surprised by how much the invention could hold. It definitely worked as a muff. Two hands could comfortably lie clasped inside. Gathering things in the office we found that one side pocket could hold half a packet of biscuits, a muesli bar and an apple. We put a small flask into the other side. With the outer flaps in place, there was no indication of the extra capacity of the muff.

Cunningham took an object that was an ordinary part of women’s wear and reworked it to accommodate the needs of women working outside the home. Her invention was for lowly office and factory workers. It’s aim was to enable their independent working lives. In the process of identifying and responding to their everyday needs, it draws attention to and legitimises the importance of a workforce rarely discussed or valued.

We made a more brightly coloured version of Cunningham’s invention as part of the collection of patented pockets performed in the “POCKETS of POWER” theatre piece commissioned by Glastonbury Theatre & Circus 2023, also shown at the 2023 Being Human Festival and Mayven Festival in Cornwall. See below for more links and research.

More research into Cunningham's invention