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A Look at the Wintry World Inside
by Bob Brooke


Collectors love snow globes. Some call them water balls, shake toys or snow domes. Others call them blizzard weights, crystal-shakes, Schneekugel or “snow ball,” snowfall weights, snowscenes, snowshakes, snowstorms, water globes, or water-filled weights. Among American collectors, snow globe and snow dome are the two most popular names. But snow globes aren’t always round. Many come in a variety of shapes like bottles, cubes, drums and rectangles. Whatever they’re called, they’re winter wonderlands that mesmerize both adults and children.

Snow Globe Beginnings
Snow globes originated in France in the 1870s. Extensions of the solid-glass paperweights, some of the earliest ones contained patterns and shapes and soon someone came up with the idea of putting liquid and white powder inside them. By 1878, there were at least seven French manufacturers exhibiting them at the Exposition Universelle, or “Exhibition of the Works of Art and Industry of All Nations,” held in Paris between May 1 and October 10. The most common one was a globe containing a man with an umbrella. When a person turned the paperweight upside down, the white powder in the globe floated down like snow.

Even the use of the term "snow" is questionable. Contemporary snow globes often contain “flitter,” the technical name for the floating material in the form of porcelain flecks, bone chips, camphor and wax, ground rice, iridescent glitter or plastic geometric or figural pieces like tiny dollar bills or black bats for Halloween, rather than white snow. Theme related flitter is becoming more and more common.

In 1889, an unknown company produced a snow globe containing a model of the newly built Eiffel Tower was produced to commemorate the International Exposition in Paris, which marked the centenary of the French Revolution. Snow globes became popular in England during the Victorian Era and, in the early 1920s, crossed the Atlantic to the United States where they became a popular collectors’ item.

At the end of the 19th century Austrian Erwin Perzy, a producer of surgical instruments, invented the so-called Schneekugel, or snow globe, and got the first patent for it. Originally he wanted to develop an extra bright light source for use as a surgical lamp. As he tried to intensify the candlepower of a so-called Schusterkugel, a water filled flask used to focus light since the Middle Ages, with particles made out of different materials for better reflection, the effect reminded him of a snowfall, and thus he got the idea for a snow globe. He then built his first actual globe and placed a model of the Basilica of Mariazell in it. Because of the great request for his snow globes, Perzy, along with his brother Ludwig, opened a shop in Vienna, where production continues today. The material the firm uses to produce the "snow" is a closely guarded secret that has been handed down from generation to generation.

Because the globes had to be hand blown, the glass-making centers of Germany, present-day Austria and the Czech Republic became the principal manufacturing centers.

Snow Globes Beyond Europe
Snow globes initially came to the U.S. as souvenirs purchased by Americans traveling abroad. By the early 20th century, cottage industry manufacturers in Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, the Bavaria region of Germany and Poland made snow globes for European tourist sites. Few of these early snow globes contained a manufacturer’s mark.

Joseph Garaja of Pittsburgh developed the first American snow globe. His patent, granted Dec. 31, 1929, focused on ball paperweights with movable features, for instance, a fish among a bed of sea plants. While the patent makes no mention of snow, Johnson Smith and Co., a seller of mail-order novelties, offered one with a miniature snowman with snowflakes blowing about him.

The success of the European and American snow globes attracted the attention of the Japanese. Japanese manufactured snow globes began arriving in the United States in the late 1930s. Asian manufacturers from Japan and Hong Kong quickly dominated the market. Flexibility in form and an endless variety of motifs contributed to their success. But there was a flaw. Many Asian snow globes featured pirated designs from European makers, as well as shoddy construction.

When World War II interrupted Japanese imports, William M. Snyder founded Atlas Crystal Works of Trenton, New Jersey, and built it into a snow globe manufacturing empire during the 1940s, aided in part by a government contract to supply snow globes for sale in military stores during the war.

Contents of Snow Globes
Initially snow globes consisted of a heavy lead glass globe placed over a ceramic figure or tableau on a black cast ceramic base, filled with water and then sealed. Manufacturers used bone chips or pieces of porcelain, sand or even sawdust for the snow or “flitter.” As they became more sophisticated, the glass became thinner, the bases lighter. During the Art Deco period, bakelite was popular, and the snow in these globes consisted of particles of gold foil or non-soluble soap flakes.

And while manufacturers originally filled them with water, many today use glycol, an antifreeze and thickening agent, that helps keep the flitter afloat. An added benefit was that glycol slowed the descent of the snow. Though the figures inside are very small, they’re magnified by the liquid.

Collecting Snow Globes
Winter or Christmas themes dominate snow globes. But there are ones that celebrate other holidays, seasons, and special occasions like birthdays and weddings. There are even snow globes that show likenesses of such celebrities as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, or Elvis Presley.

Victorian loved filling their homes with knickknacks, treasured souvenirs, and sometimes simply kitschy things like snow globes. They were great conversation pieces then as now.

Snow globe collecting increased threefold in 1940 when RKO Radio Pictures Inc. released Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman,” starring Ginger Rogers. A snow globe with a bisque figure of a young girl sledding down a hill from a castle serves as the transition element between principal scenes.

Although snow globes became passé in the late 1940s, the form remained alive. The snow globe was in transition. When it emerged in the late 1950s, it was a very different product from the traditional glass ball globe on a ceramic or plastic base. Thermo-plastic injection molding, developed during and immediately after World War II, allowed snow globes to be made with plastic globe-shaped forms with injected molded interior scenes.

The snow globe renaissance that began in the late 1950s continued through the 1960s. With the advent of microelectronics, many snow globes were no longer mere paperweights but featured lights, motion and music.

Once again, the excitement wore off. As the cost of production rose during the 1970s and early 1980s, many souvenir snow globes disappeared. Fortunately, the seasonal holiday gift market has kept snow globes alive.

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