Ideal dome exhibition
Snow globes come in a host of shapes, sizes and designs, and their history is more contentious than you might think
THERE’S enough European friction going on with all this Brexit brouhaha but here’s the thing: who invented the snow globe? Was it France… or Austria? One thing’s for sure, despite claims in some quarters, it certainly wasn’t America, but on a visit to the Miami Biennale last week, we found ourselves surrounded by the things.
Every Christmas display in every department store was stuffed with them. Americans love them, old and new, but the claim they invented them is simply not true.
Records published by United States commissioners on the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878, talk of “paperweights of hollow balls filled with water, containing a man with an umbrella. These balls also contain a white powder which, when the paperweight is turned upside down, falls in imitation of a snowstorm.”
In the same exhibition there in 1889 a “snow weight” by an unknown maker was on show containing a miniature replica of the newly-built Eiffel Tower, a central attraction of the event, with ceramic flakes suspended in the water. It can be seen today in the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Wisconsin, although sadly, its water has evaporated.
Round one to Paris. However, Austria fights back with the inescapable truth that the first patent for a “schneekugel” or snow globe, was awarded to Erwin Perzy, a Viennese surgical instruments mechanic, although he hit on the idea entirely by chance.
He was working on the new invention of “cold light” – light with a high range of ultraviolet rays
– and he responded to a request from a surgeon to enhance the power of the Edison electric light bulbs fitted in his operating theatre.
Taking inspiration from lamps used by lace makers in which the power of a candle is magnified by a clear glass globe filled with water, Perzy experimented with types of reflective material including ground glass, which he added to the water.
Nothing worked until he tried ground rice. When the particles became soaked with the water, they sank gently to the base of the glass, reminding him of snowfall.
His first snow globe contained a model of Austria’s Maria Zell Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, which he made in pewter, and the patent for it was granted in 1900.
Sales were so successful that he and his brother, Ludwig, opened a shop in Vienna, where production continues to this day as a family business.
Perzy’s achievement was recognised by Kaiser Franz Josef I and sales boomed on both sides of the Atlantic, boosted still further by Hollywood. In 1940, sales doubled after Ginger Rogers appeared in “Kitty Foyle”. Middle-class Kitty falls in love with a wealthy man, much to the annoyance of his family and in a flashback to happier days, she shakes a snow globe containing a figure of a girl on a sledge.
A year later, they more than doubled again when the monumental opening scene from Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” featured a snow globe containing a tiny log cabin.
When U.S. newspaper baron Charles Kane dies with the word “Rosebud” on his lips, the globe he’s holding drops from his hand and shatters, causing reporters to delve into what it meant. The globe was made by Perzy’s company.
Original Vienna Snowglobes are painted and assembled by hand using quality Austrian glass not plastic, filled with clear alpine water and exclusive “snow”, which may or may not be ground rice – it’s a family secret – each assembled and sealed individually.
For the first 40 years, the interior diorama was always a church but Erwin Perzy II extended the range to include Father Christmas, snowmen figurines and tiny Christmas trees. There are now more than 350 different designs.
“The Original Vienna Snowglobe is famous for the longest lasting snow, the clearest glass globes, the widest range of standard and custom styles, and my personal quality assurance,” Erwin Perzy III, grandson of the inventor told me.
Around 200,000 are made annually, ranging in size from 35mm to 120mm (1.5 inch to 4.5 inches) in diameter, sold from the shop, which doubles as a museum where a guided tour takes visitors around Perzy’s first workshop.
Mass production of snow globes was soon well underway in the U.S.
Joseph Garaja, a Pittsburgh maker, was granted a patent in
1929, followed in 1944 by another to William M. Snyder of the Atlas Crystal Works, who was based first in New Jersey and later in Covington, Tennessee.
The former was responsible for persuading the company Novelty Pool Ornaments to produce a version showing a fish swimming among sea grass, while the latter emerged as one of the major manufacturers having perfected the technique of mounting the glass dome on to a ceramic base underwater so that the dome was filled entirely. Prices started at $1 a time and examples are recognisable because the company’s name is printed underneath. Add two noughts for antique examples today. Their products are poor relations in comparison, but they are collected widely.
The period coincided with the boom in advertising and tourism after two world wars, both of which boosted production further.
Globes with advertising slogans and logos sell for a premium.
The advent of plastic and injection moulding in the 1950s meant costs were reduced and production increased, but at great cost to quality.
Collecting snow globes took off in the 1980s when kitsch was a craze, fuelled by such luminaries as Andy Warhol.
Those with glass globes and ceramic bases are worth more than all-plastic examples. Globes commemorating specific events are prized, particularly rarities from world fairs. Avoid globes with the all-too-familiar Christmas themes, especially Santa, and any in which the fluid level is anything less than full. Plastic discolours over time and a treasured globe should be kept out of sunlight.
Avoid also “snow” that has failed the test of time. Cheaper examples have no snow at all, while others show signs of “snow sickness” in which the flakes have become congealed and lie forlornly around the inside of the base in a lump.
The joy of a snow globe is simple: creating a magical winter wonderland in the palm of your hand …without worrying about how to get to work.
Erwin Perzy III with an early snow globe featuring a hand-crafted model of St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. Left, an early Perzy snowman globe
The Original Vienna Snowglobe company made globes for Presidents Reagan and Obama; Old and new Perzy globes in the company’s museum in Vienna
Erwin Perzy I, aged 25