Inuit Sunglasses: Brought Back from the Arctic by the 19th-Century Explorer William Parry

Geographical, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Inuit Sunglasses: Brought Back from the Arctic by the 19th-Century Explorer William Parry


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When the British explorer William Edward Parry travelled to the Arctic in the hope of finding the Northwest Passage (a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Arctic Ocean), he stacked up plenty of new experiences. These included trying out the kunik, the Inuit practice of rubbing noses to greet each other; entering an igloo, which Parry likened to 'being in a house of ground glass', and experiencing the pain caused by the Arctic sun reflecting off the snow.

'Some of our men having, in the course of their shooting excursions, been exposed for several hours to the glare of the sun and snow, returned at night much affected with that painful inflammation in the eyes called in America "snow blindness",' he wrote after leading his first voyage to the region, which returned to England in 1820.

'The sensation exactly resembles that produced by large particles of sand or dust in the eyes,' noted Parry. His crew initially guarded against the affliction using 'a piece of black crape', which was 'worn as a kind of short veil attached to the hat' or 'taking the glasses out of a pair of spectacles, and substituting black or green crape, the glass having been found to heat the eyes and increase the irritation'.

However, later, when Parry and his men were holed up for the winter off Melville Peninsula, they spent time studying the small Inuit community living there, who, they discovered, already had their own way of dealing with the sun.

'A wooden eye-screen is worn, very simple in its construction, consisting of a curved piece of wood, six or seven inches [15-18 centimetres] long, and ten or 12 lines broad,' wrote the ship's doctor, Mr Edwards. …

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