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Inuit Snow Goggles

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of James A. Houston, 1969, www.metmuseum.org

This small pair of snow goggles, made of antler, pigment, and sinew, was created in Canada’s Hudson Bay by an unidentified Inuit craftsperson at the turn of the 20th century. The goggles, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were intended for a child’s use. Unlike many other examples of Inuit snow goggles, this pair is convex, and would stand out from a child’s face, rather than lying flat on her cheeks; the part that’s decorated with pigment is on the top of the goggles, so that an adult looking down at a child’s head might see the embellishments. 

Photokeratitis, sometimes known as snow blindness, is caused by ultraviolet light amplified while reflecting off the white of a snowy landscape. (You might think that a bright, sunny day would put eyes more at risk of damage, but in actuality, as Antarctic explorers of the first half of the 20th century found, cloudy days with diffuse light could be just as dangerous.) The condition can be intensely painful and requires days of recovery, which poses a serious problem for people who need to travel through all-white landscapes. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of James A. Houston, 1969, www.metmuseum.org

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of James A. Houston, 1969, www.metmuseum.org

The Inuit solution—snow goggles like these—allowed people to travel long distances without suffering the pain of photokeratitis. “Unlike sunglasses, [Inuit] snow goggles do not mist or ice over in the polar climate,” writes ophthalmologist Mogens Norn, who looked at Inuit snow goggles held in Danish and Greenlandic museums and assessed their usefulness in a 1996 study. Their simplicity equals stability of use; a wearer would not find himself taking off the goggles to clean them, putting himself at risk of exposure. While pointing out that the goggles restrict the wearer’s visual field—“there is a risk of stumbling, as the wearer cannot see depressions in the ground”—Norn writes that the goggles he tested did work well to protect eyes from ultraviolet light and visible short-wave light, which cause snow-blindness.

This pair is carved from antler, but some Inuit goggles, especially those made later in the 20th century, have been made from wood. “Gunpowder or soot mixed with oil and rubbed on the outside cuts down on the glare even more,” writes Jessica Metcalfe on her Beyond the Buckskin blog, in a post that also features a neat photo of a Canadian First Nations man identified only as “Anavik,” wearing some wooden snow goggles in 1916.

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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History
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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