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Monday, February 18, 2019

Snow Globes

Though long associated with Christmas, the snow globe is really as much or more an emblem of winter.
It's mid-February and so far, we've had a relatively mild winter--cold, but no blizzards or major accumulations of snow--while some areas have had more than their fill of the white stuff already. We do get a quickly-melting inch or so from time to time, what my wife calls "decorative" snowfalls, but seldom anything worth shoveling. (Hurray for global warming!) Regardless of the depth, snow makes an otherwise brown, gray, dreary landscape into an exquisitely beautiful winter wonderland. About a 130 years ago a company in Paris came out with a much smaller, more manageable "decorative snowfall" in the form of a glass orb filled with water and tiny white flakes featuring a miniature figure of a man holding an umbrella (in a snowstorm?). They promoted and sold them at the Paris World Exhibition in 1887.

A self-portrait by the inventor?
Probably not.
Be that as it may, the real "inventor" of the snow globe was an Austrian man named Erwin Perzy, though he apparently did so accidentally. In 1900, while living outside Vienna, where he ran a medical instrument supply business, Perzy was asked by a local surgeon to improve upon Thomas Edison’s then-new lightbulb, which the surgeon want-ed made brighter for his operating room. Drawing upon a method used by shoe-makers to make quasi-“spotlights,” Perzy placed a water-filled glass globe in front of a candle, which increased the light’s magni-fication. Then he sprinkled tiny bits of re-flective glitter into the globe to help brighten it. But the glitter sank too quickly, so Perzy tried semolina flakes (commonly found in baby food) instead. They didn’t quite work, either, but the appearance of the small, white particles drifting around the globe reminded Perzy of snowfall. Wasting no time, he quickly filed the first official patent for a snow globe, or Schneekugel (in German). By 1905, he was churning out handmade snow globes by the dozens. Often they featured small church figurines made from pewter—through his company, Firm Perzy. They became so popular among well-to-do Austrians that in 1908, Perzy was officially honored for his treasured item by Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Typical of the content, style, and decoration of late-19th-Century snow globes. Notice, it makes no reference whatsoever to either Christmas or winter.
The snow globe appeared at a time when upper-middle-class families, newly wealthy from the Industrial Revolution, began collecting intricate, artistic objects and displaying them in their homes. Though it’s unclear exactly how much these early globes cost, they were expensive due to the amount of time necessary to paint, mold, and assemble them. After World War I concluded in 1918, a boost in tourism led to greater demand for eye-catching souvenirs—especially snow globes. Gradually, news of the whimsical trinket reached America. In 1927, a Pittsburgh man named Joseph Garaja applied for the first snow globe patent in the U.S. and with it, he introduced a radical new means of production: underwater assembly. This ensured that each globe would be fully filled with liquid and saved a significant amount of time and money—transforming the snow globe from an expensive indulgence into the affordable commodity we know today. Within a few years, snow globes were being sold for as little as $1 (around $19 today).
Orson Wells/Citizen Kane's fragile, if somewhat melodramatic, snow globe.
Hollywood discovered the snow globe around 1940. The 1940 Oscar-nominated drama Kitty Foyle, used one as a plot device to trigger flashback scenes. And in 1941, the Orson Welles epic film, Citizen Kane, also featured a snow globe, (made by none other than Erwin Perzy) in its now-legendary opening sequence, wherein Charles Kane dies while holding a glass sphere containing a wintery miniature log cabin, which falls and shatters on the ground. Sales of snow globes increased 200-percent. By the 1950s, snow globes had become an American phenomenon employed for advertising, having been used to promote civilian morale during World War II featuring tiny soldiers. The introduction of plastics and injection-molding further improved the snow globe with pricey particles used for the “snow” replaced with cheap plastic “flitter.” Adding glycol to the water helped it fall more slowly. Snow globes could be found in gift shops across the country, becoming a highly sought-after souvenir during the post-war tourism boom. Walt Disney’s earliest-known snow globe, with its miniature Bambi, dates to 1959.
When arranged in a grouping, the impact of artisan snow globes is often greater than the sum of its parts.
As collectors' items or art objects, snow globes have since became so common they've earned the designation as "kitsch," a term reserved for art that has become too successful. Quite frankly, the label is often well-deserved. However, the key factor is not the globe itself, or even the "snow," but the tired, trite content commonly depicted. Notwithstanding Citizen Kane, when you've seen one stylized church, one Alpine village, or grove of woodland firs, you've pretty much seen them all. Yet, as illustrated in the snow globes above and below, there is room for a considerable range of uniquely original content if an artist takes the time to seek it out. (As seen in the video at the bottom.)
Snow globes evoke memories of childhood before snow became a shoveling nuisance.

The polar bear in a snowstorm.
Trite? Or cleverly humorous.
In recent years, artists have employed words within the snow globe as a medium to proclaim a message, or perhaps illustrate periods of art history as seen below. As an art instructor, I used to refer to a blank sheet of drawing paper as a "polar bear in a snowstorm" (right). Despite their century-long period of development, snow globes are not hard to make. In fact, they are ideal as DIY projects for both adults and children (under close supervision by adults, of course). 
The snow globe as a message medium--funny, educational, sometimes even obscene.
Amazon offers an empty snow globe kit priced at $32 (with free shipping). The kit includes easy to assemble instructions, floating bits of "snow," a dark cherry wood base, and a six-inch clear glass globe. Just add water and stir. For the more economy minded, materials needed are a glass or plastic jar (with screw-on lid), waterproof glue, plastic figures, trees, or other decorations, distilled water, glycerin, white glitter (available at craft stores) and an optional ribbon with an optional bow to cover up the base (lid). Be sure to remove the label from the jar.

The form is not important, it's what's inside that counts.


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