Every time you don tinted eyewear, whether sunglasses or ski goggles, you’re wearing history. Protective eyewear has its roots in the Arctic north and high mountains of the Alps.
Thousands of years ago, the Inuit and Yupik people of Alaska and northern Canada carved narrow slits into ivory, antler, and wood to create the world’s first snow goggles. This diminished exposure to direct and reflected ultraviolet rays—thereby reducing eye strain and preventing snow blindness. These first goggles were curved to match facial contours and fit the nose. They were affixed with a caribou sinew head strap.
Eighteenth-century mountaineers in the European Alps discovered the need for sun protection in the thin, high altitude air. Scottish mountaineer and early Himalayan pioneer Harold Raeburn wrote, “…masks used often to be worn as a protection to the face on glaciers. They were made of linen or cotton, with holes cut for the eyes. They give the wearer a most weird and sinister appearance…”
Masks provided limited protection for the eyes. John Ruskin, a Victorian era art critic, developed a solution in the 1840s. His study of mountains in painting and in-person strained his eyes, “…desperately bad too (sic) in an attempt to draw, and farther hurt by immense quantities of snow.” He hired a craftsman to make some of the first sunglasses. His affection for the tinted eyewear, outlandish at the time, earned him the nickname, “Gigalamps.”
In 1888, Jules Baud designed the first protective eyewear for men who were hunting crystals in the French Alps. A few short years later, tinted goggles were de riguer for the mountaineer. Lenses, originally simple smoked glass, became more sophisticated. In 1893, author Claude Wilson, MD wrote, “Tinted goggles are needed while on snow, and a neutral tint is the best colour.” He cautioned that, “two pairs should at least be taken; for, although cheap substitutes can be obtained at most Alpine villages, they are in many respects inferior to those made in England.”
While climbing, one pair of glasses was carried on the hat secured by hooks. The spare pair was carried in the pocket in a small tin box. The designs of the day incorporated metal frames, often “bound in velvet.” Glass technology became more sophisticated and commercial. In 1920, Raeburn wrote, “These… tinted spectacles used to cut off the actinic sun-rays… Too dark a tint is a mistake. It is better to use goggles which interfere as little as possible with the natural appearance of the surroundings. The tint called London Smoke is suitable.”
“If from any cause the precaution has not been taken, snow-blindness, either slight or severe, may come on.”
Goggles could be had at prices from one franc to one guinea (USD$39 today). It was a small price to pay. Raeburn noted that the alternative could lead to snow blindness: “…as with sunburn, mist does not stop the chemical rays which do the mischief. If from any cause the precaution has not been taken, snow-blindness, either slight or severe, may come on.” The affliction was as debilitating then as it is today. “It is an exceedingly painful affliction,” Raeburn wrote. “The sufferer may have to be confined to a darkened room for several days. It does not appear to result in a permanent loss of sight. A few drops of a dilute solution of cocaine may be used to ease the pain when severe.
By the early 20th century, similar goggles were worn by automobile drivers and aircraft pilots. Mountaineering eyewear evolved to protect eyes from glare entering from the sides, while also providing ventilation. In “Mountain Craft” (1949), Geoffrey Winthrop Young wrote, “Glasses, dark, smoked or yellow-green… should be protected at the sides, and ventilated if set on frames. If the glass breaks, plaster or cardboard or paper with a pin-hole in it may be stuck in the frame… On rocks they can be carried in a pocket contrived high up under the armpit; and round the hat when in occasional use.”
Jules Baud’s 19th-century eyewear line evolved into the Julbo brand. His iconic mountaineering glasses incorporated leather side cups to block stray light and a neck string to hang the glasses when not in use. These were a mainstay in the 1960s Himalayan mountaineering expeditions.
While technological developments—polarized and photochromatic lenses, modular construction, and nylon frames—have advanced the style and performance of glacier glasses, the time-tested mountaineering design is hugely popular. It represents a classic blend of form and function, iconic to this day.