Home Vintage Scuba Vintage Scuba with Alec Peirce – Evolution of Masks Part II

Vintage Scuba with Alec Peirce – Evolution of Masks Part II

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Alec's first mask
Alec's first mask

I started getting interested in the underwater in the early ‘50s. My dear Uncle Charlie had a cottage in Bowmanville – maybe you’ve read the stories about my first dives and first snorkeling. I purchased my first mask at a hardware store in my hometown a long time ago. It cost about $2.98 – a lot of money. I was working at the time after school, delivering newspapers at .25 cents a day so it took quite a while. I was fussy and really interested – Mike Nelson and Sea Hunt hadn’t started yet – in the undersea world and I wanted to be good at it.

By Alec Peirce

This mask has two red knobs on the back, and once it’s pulled out, you’ll notice a hole that goes right down inside the mask. What’s it for? It’s simple: you put a snorkel in it. I’d put the snorkel on and swim underwater for undersea treasure in the lakes of Ontario – not likely too much treasure but I had a lot of fun. You could buy the mask in different versions, and I didn’t buy the single-snorkel mask. I was going to be a professional scuba diver, so I saved up the pennies it took – probably an extra 75 cents – to get the double version. My old mask is dry now, isn’t pliable anymore, and certainly doesn’t fit my face; but when I was a boy I swam around looking for treasure.

This idea wasn’t uncommon. Another similar mask was made by Voit (blue rubber and removable plugs). Another version, an orange one, looked like a Disney mask and had a dry snorkel that had “ping pong balls” in them: the theory was that and you went down, the “ping pong ball” would come up and blocked the tube. It often worked and was far from perfect.

Another new mask is the very first to have a double seal: an outside seal and inside seal to help keep water out. Another interesting mask has three windows and is flexible: there’s a bump in the lens and you can squeeze the nose; and there’s a purge valve on the bottom so it’s pretty sophisticated.

This collection is less than half of my masks, and I like the boxes. This one is really neat: there’s a skin diver with a speargun who’s just speared a great big swordfish that’s about three times as big as him; but he’s got the mask on so he’s going to be successful. That was the kind of advertising we had in those days. This one was marketed by Healthways and was touted as a serious mask for serious divers.

An early mask from Sportsways (a well-known company at the time) has something interesting besides the monstrous purge on the front: there’s something written on the glass: Sam Lecoqc’s signature. Sam Lecog was a good friend of mine and the founder of Sportsways. I took this mask to him and he was gracious enough to sign the glass.

Colored masks were not common – masks were almost all black. Coloring the mask didn’t work very well – my green mask is all dried and the blue is hanging in there – because when they added color to the rubber, it destroyed the rubber’s ability to stay. Here’s a mask from the ‘70s colored red, white, and blue as part of their centennial. It’s completely dried, and if I tried to move the rubber it would crack and break into small pieces. Colored masks didn’t become successful until much later.

The Equalizer mask has tinted glass like a modern mask with the same basic style: a piece of glass, a strap, and so on. Another neat old mask from Healthways is made from gum rubber, which is almost translucent, and has that same basic style. There’s a neat little mask, the Nautillus, looks like it’s for a kid but it’s for a diver; another strange mask is a plastic bowl with a skirt and strap attached.

With this vintage scuba series, I’ll pick some of these masks and show you some of the strange ones as we go along. I hope that’s given you an idea on how masks have changed from a piece of rubber firehose all the way up to the modern silicone masks you enjoy today.

Spider mask

But before you scoot, I want to show a couple masks over here. At one time, during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, diving with a full-face mask was quite popular. You could see and breathe through the mask as well. It fastens with several straps (a “spider”) and held firmly against your face. Once you got the mask on, you could insert a good two-hose regulator. It was neat because the airflow through the mask would keep the glass cleared. But how do you equalize? On the inside of the mask, under the nose, there’s a little pad of foam rubber, and when you wanted to equalize, you’d take the whole mask and push it against your nose. The foam rubber would come up and plug your nostrils, and you’d usually get enough air pressure to equalize.

There’s a small portion of my vintage mask collection and I’ll be happy to show you more. We’ll talk about snorkels, fins, regulators, communication devices… so many thing we’ve enjoyed over that 50, 60 years of scuba diving. I look forward to talking with you again real soon!