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The Fascinating History of Snow Globes

by Lisa-Anne Sanderson

Have you ever watched snow globes glittering in store windows at Christmas, and wondered about their origins? Beloved by children, the magical items boast a long and fascinating history, which began in late nineteenth-century France. Eventually, news of the globes reached America, which led to their being mass-manufactured and cheap, however, collectors usually buy expensive handcrafted ones.

Viewers flocked to see the first snow globe at the Paris Exposition of 1878, which featured a tiny man with an umbrella. Eleven years later, a globe containing a model of the newly built Eiffel Tower went on display at the 1889 International Exposition in Paris, and these models were sold as souvenirs. One of these globes can be seen at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Wisconsin.

The Austrians, however, attribute the invention of the 'schneekugel' (snow globe) to Edwin Perzy, a Viennese surgical instrument manufacturer. A surgeon asked him to brighten the light of the Edison light bulbs in his operating theatre. Perzy noticed that shoemakers created small spotlights in their workshops by filling glass globes with water and placing them in front of candles, but he soon discovered that this method didn't work for light bulbs.

After this disappointment, Perzy decided to experiment with adding something to the water which could help reflect the light. He tried glass powder and various other white substances without success, because they sank to the bottom too quickly. Eventually, Perzy put white semolina flakes into the water. The tiny white flakes falling slowly down in the water reminded him of a snowstorm, and he wondered if people would buy these pretty items.

Perzy's brother agreed that it was a good idea to sell the snow globes, and the brothers started making handcrafted snow globes with Viennese glass, opening their first shop, the Original Wiener Schneekugel Manufactur, in Vienna. The first one that they made was a model of Austria's Mariazell Basilica, a popular pilgrimage site. This was a ceramic miniature mounted onto a black gypsum dome. The brothers obtained the first patent for snow globes in 1905.

Americans enjoyed seeing the snow globes in Europe and started bringing them back as souvenirs. Only relatively wealthy people could afford the expensive items, however, until Joseph Garaja started manufacturing them in the 1920s. He discovered that assembling the globes underwater so that they filled with water saved time and money, and he soon started mass-producing the articles. The snow globes soon became popular Christmas gifts.

After movie-lovers saw Kitty Foyle (1940), sales of snow globes doubled in the U.S. In the movie, Kitty (Ginger Rogers) treats her snow globe as a good friend, asking it questions about her life, and using it to reminisce. The trusted globe stays with her during several twists and turns, including a star-crossed love affair and her father's death. This enchanted the audience.

A snow globe also featured in Citizen Kane (1941). The opening scene shows Kane (Orson Welles) holding a snow globe in his hand, which shatters dramatically as he dies. The meaning of this scene has often been discussed by film critics.

Snow globes became even cheaper in the 1950s with innovations in plastics. Now the 'flitter,' or flakes, could be made with plastic materials, and water was mixed with glycol so that the flakes sank more slowly. Now, anyone could afford the humble snow globe.

A wide variety of snow globes are available now, from inexpensive, mass-produced ones to beautiful handmade items with pure glass and alpine water. They also feature a huge array of scenes. For example, there are globes with models of cities, such as New York City and Sydney, and characters from Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean.

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