The Canadian Snowstorm Mask (1939)

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The Canadian snowstorm mask was a plastic (not glass) cone purposed for face protection during snowstorms. The hounskull-like design is peculiar and eye-catching but was doubtless effective for short trips in girding against nature’s savage increase (though, it strikes me as doubtful how useful it would be for extended low-temperature excursions, both because of the presumed discomfort it would engender and the increasing frigidity of the plastic).

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Two women wearing snowstorm masks. Canada, Montreal, 1939. Nationaal Archief.

There is little information pertaining to the invention and given this scarcity one can only speculate as to the type of plastic used. Those unfamiliar with the period may be surprised to learn that plastic existed in the 30s; one commenter online I spied while researching the device remarked on the photo above, declaring that, “Plastic of this type had not yet been invented in 1939 – i’m thinking this picture is a fake. Glass would have been quite heavy/fragile.” He’s right that glass masks of such a density would have been both heavy and fragile (as well as horrible insulators) but he is quite wrong about the question of plastics. Synthetic polymer was created in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt (designed as a substitute for ivory). The first fully synthetic plastic—Bakelite—was created not long thereafter in 1907 as a replacement for shellac by Leo Baekeland. By the 30s, the plastic age was well underway and pervaded everything from rope to body armour. One of the most fascinating and complex plastic constructs of the time was the 1939 Plastic Pontiac, a showcar manufactured by General Motors, Fisher Body and Rohm & Haas. As the name suggests it was composed almost entirely of plastic (plexiglas had just come into use) and was see-through.

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1939 Plastic Pontiac (alternatively, the ‘See-through Pontiac’) being assembled.

My interest in the snowstorm mask lies not just purely in retro-aesthetic appreciation, but also in practical applications of prospective modulations of the design. One aspect of the mask which struck me after some rumination was its similarity to a bascinet visor.

The bascinet (alternatively, basnet) was a coned full-helm, composed of a conical or globular steel cap and pointed visor that first rose to prominence in the 13th Century and was widely used throughout Europe during the 14th and 15th Century. The helm was typically paired with a padded arming cap and mail coif. The bascinet’s pointed face-guard and conical cap offered a unique advantage over the great helm (pot helm) in terms of defense, as strikes would be more readily deflected by the design of the former, than the latter. Further, where the great helm came close about the face, the bascinet extended away from the face, meaning that, for a wearer of the latter, a crushing blow (such as from a mace, plançon or goedendag) was less likely to be be fatal.

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Bascinet of Ernst of Austria, c. 1400.

A rigorous synthesis of both designs may prove fruitful in the formation of future weather and weapon resistant headwear. For example: A see-through bascinet composed of photochromic synthetics would provide considerable benefit for trekkers making angled ingress across high altitudes where light is blinding, snow is thick, ice-and-rock-fall is plentiful, and oxygen is sparse.


Sources¹

  1. Alex Goranov. (—) The 14th Century Bascinet. My Armoury.
  2. Geoffrey Hacker. (2011) 1939/1940 Plastic Pontiac – First Plastic Car In The World. Undiscovered Classics.
  3. Kelly DeVries. (1996) Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century : Discipline, Tactics, and Technology. Boydell & Brewer.
  4. Nationaal Archief (2009) Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms. Nationaal Archief.
  5. Phil Morris. (2013) Snow cone masks, Snowstorm Wear. Phil Morris.
  6. SHI. (—) The History & Future of Plastics. SHI.

Footnotes

¹ ‘(—)’ denotes sources whose date of publication was not available.

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