Hot pepper and ice – and the earliest photograph of soccer north of the Arctic Circle

June 12, 2014

The 2014 FIFA World Cup has begun in Brazil this afternoon.  Since it is being played in a tropical country this year, the Penn Museum Archives thought it fitting to show what is most likely the earliest photograph of a soccer game played north of the Arctic Circle.

Iñupiat children playing soccer on the ice, Point Barrow, Alaska. Photograph by E. A. McIlhenny, 1897-1898.
Penn Museum image no. 143224

Taken at Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost spot in the United States, in 1897-1899, by Edward Avery McIlhenny, this image clearly shows a number of Iñupiat children playing with a ball on the ground.  Can we say for certain that it is soccer?  We’ll leave it to readers to decide.

Edward Avery McIlhenny was an accomplished ornithologist, though he is best known for being the son of Edmund McIlhenny, the founder of the Tabasco Sauce Company, which E. A. inherited and is still in operation today on Avery Island, Louisiana.  Below is a letter from McIlhenny to Stewart Culin, director of the Penn Museum at the time, written on the company letterhead.