You probably own a snow dome or globe or two – most of us have one somewhere about – although maybe not over 11,000 as some collectors claim. Indeed, they do have a magic of their own – and you are never too old to turn the globe and watch the snow falling, falling, falling…
The First Recorded Snow Domes
Go back to 1878 – the Paris Universal Exposition – and you might see the first snow domes created by a glassware manufacturer. They were water-filled and, appropriately, each held a tiny man with an umbrella!
The next recorded snow domes were also at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889. This time you will find the Eiffel Tower in ceramic miniature. You could hold the snow globe in the palm of your hand and celebrate the recent opening of the real Eiffel Tower.
Who Invented the Snow Domes – by Accident?
That is in some doubt, but the first person to patent the discovery was a 57-year-old Austrian surgical instrument maker. His name was Erwin Perzy.
Like many of the best discoveries, Erwin Perzy’s realisation of the potential to create snow domes was a serendipitous discovery.
One day, a surgeon bemoaned the rather poor light in the operating theatre. He wondered whether Mr. Perzy could produce a brighter light. This set Erwin thinking. He noticed a little trick which shoemakers used. They created spotlights in their workshops by filling glass globes with water. They placed these in front of candles – and hey presto – a mini spotlight.
So, Erwin tried it out, but he was disappointed to find that he couldn’t make a light bulb’s light brighter. He wondered whether he could bounce light off particles in the water. He tried glass powder – but it sank too fast.
At that time baby foods contained white semolina flakes. He put some in a globe of water and as they gradually soaked up the water and floated down, they looked just like a snowstorm to him.
Mr. Perzy’s first Snow Dome in 1900
He created a miniature replica of the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in Mariazell, Austria. This he placed in his water-filled globe and sealed it. He then mounted it onto a gypsum base and painted the base black. His first snow dome!
He patented his discovery and set up a company “Original Vienna Snow Globes”, which is still in operation today under the leadership of Edwin’s grandson, Mr. Perzy III.
How to define a snow dome
A snow globe or dome has a transparent glass or plastic shell, filled with a liquid and a miniature scene or diorama. When the snow dome is inverted or shaken gently and then put upright again, snow appears to flow slowly to the bottom.
They can be varying sizes and may have outer decorations which can be elaborate. They may also have a built-in musical box to further enchant you.
The evolution of the diorama
In the beginning, the scenes were almost invariably that of a church (the exceptions being the very early ones). Then, tourism and seasonal snow domes took over, together with the advertising. But even now, the little scenes tend to entrance the children and perhaps lend a little nostalgia for adults. Indeed, Christmas without a snow globe? Unthinkable!
The American Contribution
Snow globes were painstakingly crafted – a slow and expensive process although the final results were miniature works of art.
Yet, the Atlas Crystal company was formed in 1930 by William Snyder from New Jersey – and they sold for just $1. Little wonder they became a major producer.
It seems obvious now but filling the globes completely presented a problem. But in 1927, Joseph Garaja for Pittsburgh realised that if you filled the globes underwater, this ensured they were completely filled. This made the production of the snow globe cheaper to produce for the mass market.
It comes as no surprise to find that the practical Americans found a use in advertising for the snow domes – and then, of course, there were the films. Perhaps the best known was the dramatic opening scene of Citizen Kane in 1941. Films resulted in huge increases in sales.
In fact, Snow Domes were found everywhere! Tourist attractions and mementos, train rides, golf clubs, caves, garages – anywhere you care to look you could have found the snow falling, falling – a little touch of magic.
By the 1950s, new techniques in plastic and injection-molding meant even cheaper snow globes. Hong Kong became a center for its production. Old fashioned marble, bone chips, semolina or ground rice could be replaced by plastic “flitter”. Glycol, antifreeze and other substances were added to the water, allowing the snow to fall more slowly.
And That Brings Us to a Problem
The liquid is often poisonous. Never drink it no matter how thirsty you are. And if you drop your snow globe do not let your cat or dog step in it, lick it or lick it off their fur – it might be lethal.
Another hazard can be freezing. Some suppliers refuse to mail the snow dome if the weather is very cold in case the globe cracks.
Nowadays, we are all becoming increasingly aware of the gross plastic pollution in our oceans. Sadly, the plastic chips used in snow domes will eventually add to the problem.
And if you are traveling by airplane, make sure it will fit into a Diplo bag!
The Huge Variety You Can Buy Now
The original Perzy family business is still in operation, selling beautiful, carefully crafted luxury snow domes. In America, three companies stand out: the Karol Western Corporation, Nanco, and the Allen-Lewis Manufacturing company. I even received one made especially for me by my young grandson – with a family photo inside.
And inside, you can find every scene you can imagine from the popular Disney to fairy castles and tourist scenes – and of course, Father Christmas. Snowdomes have become associated with Christmas for many of us and make a nice little stocking filler. They never seem to lose their appeal.
The materials they are made from also vary enormously, especially when there is added outer decoration. The nature of the fluid changes and might be an industrial secret. But the charm remains.
You will find lots of snow domes on sites, such as eBay, of varying prices and rarity. Be wary of the packing – some refuse to send them out if the weather looks like freezing.
Today I found these examples:
Vintage Disney Snow Globe – said to be very rare, price $182 AUD
Sleeping Beauty Musical Globe – with a horse’s broken leg! This globe is 12’’ long and 7’’ wide and when the music plays “Once Upon a Dream”, then Sleeping Beauty wakes and twirls around.
Another Vintage Disney – this one for just $81 AUD
This one is a 1991 Beauty and the Beast. Again, there is music and spinning and this time, a missing piece – the character “Lumiere”.
The vendor states they will not send it in freezing weather and that you should look carefully at the picture in case you see some other imperfections.
And yet another Disney option – more expensive at $728.00 AUD
This one is said to be in excellent condition and features Beauty and the Beast again. It still has the tags but not the original box. It plays Beauty and the Beast, and the fireplace lights up.
How Would You Like 11,500 Snow Globes?
Andy Zito from California has over 11,500 snow dome and globes, including some rare and special ones. He even has one of the original 1889 “Souvenir de Paris” from the Paris Exposition. (Worth over $29,136 AUD if it ever came onto the market). He also has around 336 vintage snow domes from the “Big Things of Australia”.
Snow globes and snow domes are for everyone. They are not too difficult to find for collectors, although there are some very rare and precious ones for the serious addict. Highly decorated, detailed crafted miniature dioramas, musical or just simply “snow” falling, falling, falling. And you can watch in perfect warmth and comfort, controlling the fall as you wish.