Antique Non-Optical Sunshades (against sun, wind and snow)

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Over the centuries, eyewear to protect against the elements has been used by people in different parts of the world. Sunshades or “snow-eyes” are considered to be the earliest form of protective eyewear.

The Arctic is probably one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Yet some areas have a concentration of natural resources which produce a relatively productive region in order to sustain human existence. The Bering Strait, including St. Lawrence Island, is the narrow water passage between the Chukchi Peninsula of Siberia and the Seward Peninsula of Alaska. Large populations of sea mammals migrate thru this waterway during the spring and fall. Other mammals, birds and fish live there on a more permanent basis. Walrus, seals, and sea lions are known to be fairly abundant in these waters.

The Paleoeskimo first arrived in the Alaska Region at the end of the last ice age, between 30,000 and 20,000 years ago. Much later this culture was replaced by the Neoeskimo. A series of Eskimo cultures survived, hunted, and worked this specific region from the 4th century BC up to the 13th century AD.

The Thule people (AD 1000-1600) became the direct ancestors of modern Eskimo (Inuit). They appear to have been the first peoples in the North American Arctic to use snow goggles. They were especially fond of ivory walrus tusks for making their goggles while more modern Inuit peoples have tended to use wood. Other materials used in the past included musk-ox horn, whalebone, caribou antler, bone, and depilated sealskin.

People living in these regions developed an art style with engraved ornaments and figures with designs. Geometric patterns with abstract representations of human and animal features have been seen on walrus ivory carvings. Beautiful craftsmanship is sometimes present and these are considered to be among the finest art ever produced by hunting peoples.

In the Polar Regions the sun never gets higher than a two story house. Its intense glare reflects off ice and snow causing Eskimos to bear the high risk of suffering from snow blindness. To solve this, goggles were carved with horizontal slits large enough to block out the excessive light. These shielded the eyes from the wind but still would allow some range of vision. The ingenious slits improved vision and also reduced glare. They were especially useful against the intense direct and reflected sunlight which could potentially permanently damage the eyes. Mild nearsightedness and astigmatism were also improved by these slit-shaped openings.

Museums in Denmark and Greenland have a moderate number of examples of snow goggles which have been evaluated. Their slits had different sizes and different shapes. A detailed article was written by Mogens Norn, MD of the Medical History Museum of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He evaluated the protective and optical properties of fifty-nine specimens of Eskimo Snow Goggles in Danish and Greenlandic Museums. The openings (apertures) were classified into eleven categories depending upon the appearance of the eye slit. Norn then concluded that, in general, visibility was improved, dazzle was prevented, and a reduction in harmful light occurred. Unlike sunglasses, the snow goggles could not mist or ice over in the cold Polar climate. An unwanted side-effect, however, was the limited field of vision upwards and downwards because the risk of stumbling was increased.

The goggles were frequently tied behind the wearer’s head by means of a slip of seal-skin (sinew) or leather or walrus hide or even ordinary string. Sometimes the edge of the opening was colored in black so there was less reflection from the sun. Often times they were excavated on the inside for the purpose of receiving the bridge of the nose and the projecting part of the orbit and eyeball.

A wonderfully fascinating article appeared in the Feb 1918 issue of Wellsworth, Volume VI, Number 5. This American Optical Company publication mentioned a variety of AOCo products. The regular Wellsworth 3028 Goggle had been featured in this two-part article “The Man who Failed to Find Crockerland”. This article described the adventures, beginning in 1913, of Donald B McMillan’s to the unchartered tract of lands known to be north of Alaska. Several years earlier in April 1909 this explorer had accompanied Admiral Peary when the North Pole was discovered.

“Goggles are most needed in May, when the sun is high and the hunting season is on. Eskimos live on the land and the shores of Greenland are high, granite cliffs. These blackened cliffs serve to break the monotony of white-------and rest the eyes. But when the hunters go out on the ice, far from shore, or in their crazy skin canoes, or kyaks, the glare of the sun on the snow is pitiless. In a few minutes the eyes begin to ache, and exposure for a comparatively short time produces temporary blindness, accompanied by the most excruciating pain. I know for I have had snow blindness once. I never want it again.”

“Snow blindness is a terrible thing. I have had one taste of it and I know. It feels like having sand in your eyes. The more you rub the worse it gets. It is caused by an irritation of the nerve ends on the rear wall of the eye. The only cure that I know is to pack the eyes in snow. Peary used to lay on his face in the snow when he was affected, as I have known him to be several times.”

On a related topic, the Orochen people of Northern China (regions of Asia and Siberia) have also worn eyeshades to guard against the strong reflections of the sun from ice and snow. People who live in vast plains there have a custom of wearing eyeshades to keep out blowing sands and ultraviolet radiation. In the Turfan region of China, however, during the Tang dynasty eyeshades were not for actual use; instead they were funerary objects used for covering the eyes of the deceased. In the Astana tombs of this time it was customary to cover the face with a piece of cloth. The area where the eyes should be was cut from the face cover and then an eyeshade was sewn to the fabric. Rare examples are included in the slideshow below.

In most collections even a single example of an antique “non-optical” sunshade or snow goggle is rarely seen. Therefore you are invited to enjoy all the images.

Click to see a Slide Show of Non-Spectacle Vision Aids


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