Eskimo Goggles - the first eyewear?

Generations of people have become used to living with snow and have adapted their clothing to cope. Although no longer 'politically correct', the term 'Eskimo Goggles' is a recognised eyewear classification term for collectors and does not relate specifically to any one snow-covered area of the globe nor any longer to any one ethnic group.

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Eskimo snow goggles

The pair pictured here were originally catalogued in our collection as 'rare' but a wider understanding of what is held by museums across the world has revealed that they are not that rare after all. For example the National Museum in Copenhagen has literally hundreds on display and presumably many more in storage.

Our pair has a front made of bone with two narrow eye slits. The headband strap is made from walrus hide. Known as 'Iggaak' in North American native dialect, such goggles have been worn to protect from the glare on snow (and on water) for maybe 4000 years, making them by far the oldest form of vision-related eyewear in the world, albeit without any form of corrective lens.

They vary in styles so much because each native made his own and, because traditional craft techniques were used to produce them, they can be almost impossible to date. They have been found across the Arctic Circle (including the Inuit tribes), Canada and Greenland. Just as modern inhabitants of those areas have swapped their dog-sleds for petrol-driven ski-mobiles so they have discarded this type of goggles in favour of Ray-Bans or similar designer sunglasses. Instead of adapting the natural materials they have readily to hand these hunting communities have become eyewear consumers like the rest of us.

Filos sunglasses with eye slits 1960s

In the 1960s Filos SpA of Italy produced 'sunglasses' without any lenses but just slits, reminiscent of the historic Eskmo types of goggle. These were fitted, however, with conventional spectacle sides rather than attached by a strap. In a nod to the original use of naturally-occuring materials, the ultra modern plastic frame was finished to resemble natural wood.

Note: The term 'Eskimo' is now largely outmoded if used to refer to specific tribes of the far northern hemisphere. It remains, however, the correct collectors' term for goggles of this type and we have therefore used the term in that context.

You can find out more about eskimo goggles outside of our collection by consulting a 1970s student dissertation from City University, a copy of which is held in our museum archive.

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