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.