It's a simple act, but there is nothing quite like it. You take the clear dome in your hand, give it a good shake, and beautifully, magically...
FORT WORTH, Texas — It’s a simple act, but there is nothing quite like it. You take the clear dome in your hand, give it a good shake, and beautifully, magically, Kermit the Frog is enveloped in a gorgeous, slow-motion snowstorm.
And if you’re not smiling then — whether inside it’s Kermit, a shimmery Santa, the Phantom of the Opera or the whole city of Tucson — you may want to see where you left your sense of whimsy.
Although some dismiss the snow globe as a tasteless trinket, many more have been enchanted by the quirky decoration that’s been delighting us for more than 125 years.
“It’s just such an unusual kind of fantasy world,” says collector Nancy McMichael, author of the book “Snowdomes” (Abbeville, $27.50). “The whole concept of taking something and putting it under water, and then shaking it up and looking at snow. And when the snow settles, it’s pretty to look at, but it’s incongruous; I mean, who would think, for example, of taking a statue of a little girl and then putting her under water?” McMichael says.
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A British museum, the National Glass Centre, hails snow globes as “tourism’s single greatest contribution to popular culture,” and by golly, who could argue?
“I think that everyone relates to them,” says Nina Chertoff, co-author of the recently published book “Celebrating Snow Globes” (Sterling Publishing, $10). “I think it’s memories, things that have happened, places you’ve been. And it kind of reflects the world.”
Indeed — the world of the snow globe is immense, embracing everything from Bratz, Bambi, the Beatles and the Bible to dazzling cityscapes, horse racing in Kentucky and C-3PO.
Here’s a peek into snow-globe history and lore, from the story of the very first one to the name for the snowy stuff inside.
A brief history
This whimsical creation was born of decidedly unsexy origins: Its predecessor was likely a paperweight.
Europe: One of the earliest mentions of a snow globe dates to 1878, at a multination art and industry exhibition in Paris. At that time, the snow globes were more of a Victorian upper-crust souvenir. But the first to really grab much attention was a commemorative globe of the Eiffel Tower, introduced at the Paris Exposition in 1889.
United States: Germany began exporting them to the United States in the 1920s, the same decade when a Pittsburgh entrepreneur, Joseph Garaja, started to produce them in America. His first designs were a swan, a snowman and “a small, free-moving fish on a string among ‘waving grass or marine growth,’ ” according to McMichael’s book, “Snowdomes.”
By the end of the 1930s, McMichael writes, “America was awash in waterglobes.” During the World War II era, there was a plethora of patriotic globes.
Asia: Starting in Europe in 1950, plastic globes entered the market, and mass production was upon us. However, in the latter part of the decade, producers turned to Asia to create original scenes and unusual shapes. Quick mass production caused many goofs, which are now collector’s items, according to McMichael, who writes in “Snowdomes”: “bald bathing beauties, Eiffel Towers with ‘Puerto Rico’ plaques, upside-down figurines.”
Modern-day globes: The snow globe fell out of favor in the 1970s and early ’80s, but by mid-decade there was a resurgence. Stores and catalogs began selling higher-end globes, like the ones commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue and Dallas-based Neiman Marcus. The annual Neiman Marcus musical globe is inspired by the year’s catalog cover art. And Saks does a snow globe for each city where a store is open.
Aside from souvenirs, toys and holiday decorations, over the years snow globes have been made for other reasons: to commemorate people or events (Ronald Reagan, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic), to advertise products (Spam), movies (“A Christmas Story”) and licensed characters (Shrek, the Grinch and the cast of “I Love Lucy”).
At her peak, McMichael had more than 6,000 domes in her collection — at the time, one of the world’s largest known collections.
Over the years, McMichael has sold many of her globes: 500 of them went to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, England, where they’re part of a current exhibit. So with her collection pared down to about 1,000, she thinks the new crown might belong to Linda Muether, a St. Louis woman who reportedly has somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000.
But there could be a new snow king: actor Corbin Bernsen. The former “L.A. Law” star has a collection of 6,500 globes, according to industry trade publication “Television Week.” Last summer, his collection was poised to grow even more, thanks to Kyle MacDonald, that guy on the Internet who traded one red paper clip with somebody and ended up with a house and various other possessions.
In the process, he acquired a KISS snow globe, which he traded Bernsen for a speaking role in Bernsen’s movie, “Donna on Demand.” MacDonald also promised an autographed photo of himself and Bernsen to anyone who sends a snow globe to Bernsen.
Anatomy of a snow globe
The snow: The floaty stuff — whether it looks like white snow or glitter — is referred to as “flitter.” In the early snow globes, manufacturers tried everything but the kitchen sink: bone or porcelain chips, ground rice, sand, sawdust and wax bound with camphor. Now it’s mostly plastic.
The liquid: The cheap plastic ones are usually just filled with water, but the higher-end globe makers mix their water with glycol, an antifreeze, which helps slow down the snowfall. (The antifreeze also helps when manufacturers need to ship their globes in the winter).
The figurines: They used to be made of bisque (unglazed porcelain), bone, metals, minerals, molded plastic, rubber or wax.
The base: Bases have been made of clay, marble, metal, plastic, porcelain, pottery and wood. If a snow globe plays music, as many fancy ones do, the globe may have three or four ball feet attached to the base.
Everyone remembers “Rosebud,” the deathbed utterance of the title character of the classic 1941 film “Citizen Kane.” But as he lies dying, he clutches a snow globe with a winter scene. After he whispers “Rosebud,” he draws his last breath, and the globe drops from his hand. The maker of that snow globe was Austrian Erwin Perzy, whose family is still in the snow-globe business.
The weirdly wonderful
One of the beauties of snow globes is their potential for oddity. Here are just a few that we’ve seen or heard of:
• Pez bride and groom: Snow-globe collectors who also happen to collect Pez dispensers get a rare two-fer with this one, featuring bride and groom dispensers on a wedding cake inside a globe. It’s part of the Mitchell Gordon collection.
• Soap box: This globe is actually in the shape of a television with rabbit ears. Inside it are cartoon characters from a fictional soap opera. They’re shown from the torso up, and the ground around them is littered with what appear to be soap flakes.
• Light-up crucifix: McMichael thinks some of the oddest are the religious snow globes with crucifixes that light up. “They were sold at Bible stores, and the light would flash,” she says. “I used to call it the flashing resurrection. That is really bizarre.”
• Blood globe: Inspired by the movie “Halloween,” this globe features the Jamie Lee Curtis character sitting by a sofa, being stalked by the homicidal, knife-wielding Michael Myers. When you shake the globe, a shower of red flakes — simulating blood — rains down on the characters.