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For The Home

Snow Globes

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: December, 2013, Page 36
Photos by David B. Moore

The holidays are the ideal time to bring out your snow globes—old and new. The top two here are from Neiman Marcus and feature holiday themes. The bottom globe is from Saks Fifth Avenue and has an Arizona-inspired scene. All three are music boxes.

History, Highlights and Helpful Hints

In the souvenir shops and roadside stops that dot the country from coast to coast, plastic snow globes share shelf space with coffee mugs, shot glasses, magnets, floaty pens and other take-home trinkets. Like their shelf mates, snow globes serve as mementos of time spent in a particular place.

“They’re kind of kitschy and cool and retro looking,” says Andy Zito, a snow dome collector from Los Angeles. “People collect them as souvenirs from a place they visited. It anchors their memory of their experience there.”

Zito has some 10,300 snow globes in his collection. Most of them are plastic, and many are in the figural, advertising and “highway hangout” categories. Some are rare and quite valuable. “I have a practically mint Bugs Bunny issued by Universal Studios in the ’70s, and I have one from Iran Air that was issued when the Shah of Iran was in power. It’s really a cool one. But the highway hangout souvenirs are more sentimental for me. When my father retired in the ’70s, we drove from New York City across the country and stopped at a lot of places like that. I didn’t collect them at the time, but when I did start collecting, I remembered all those cool locations we stopped at or passed by. For me, they represent my trip out West, the roadside attractions and tourist traps.”

Snow globes­—also called snow domes, snow shakers, snow storms, waterdomes, waterballs or blizzards—are said to have begun as paperweights. France lays claim to the earliest known examples. Some say the first was made to commemorate the Paris Universal Expo in 1878; others insist the first didn’t appear until the 1889 International Exposition in Paris. In either case, France wins. (And, not incidentally, Zito owns a snow globe from the 1889 event.)

From a private collector, this small dome is made of plastic.
They caught on in Europe soon after, but it wasn’t until 1900 that someone was officially recognized for having invented them: Erwin Perzy, a medical instrument technician from Vienna, Austria, owns the patent for a “Glass Globe With Snow Effect.” Evidently, Perzy was asked by a surgeon to make a brighter light for use in the operating room. He set out to magnify the light emitted from a light bulb by placing a globe filled with water in front of it. By incorporating reflective bits in the globe, he hoped to reflect the light further. That failed, but he took a liking to the effect of the floating particles. He made a miniature pewter replica of the nearby Mariazell Basilica and stuck it in a glass globe filled with water and ground rice. With a simple twist of the wrist, the ground rice was sent swirling and, suddenly, it was snowing on the little scene.

Perzy began making snow globes in earnest, building a business that today is run by his grandson, Erwin Perzy III. Called Original Viennese Snowglobe Maker, the company makes some 200,000 snow domes a year, by hand, including special orders. One such globe was made for Bill Clinton that included some confetti from his inauguration. The company’s studio also is home to a snow globe museum where visitors can see some of their unique works, as well as the process of creating snow globes and the workshop where Erwin Perzy made his first one.

The practice of putting miniature replicas of people, places and things inside water-filled globes crossed the pond from Europe to the U.S. in the 1920s. As in Europe, the first snow globes in America were constructed of glass, often with ceramic or Bakelite bases. Then, in the 1960s, a whole new category opened up. “Marx Toys issued one with little boys on a see-saw. It was made in Hong Kong with molded-plastic pieces inside a plastic dome. This type of snow dome gained a lot of interest throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and they started being issued from all kinds of locations around the world. They were made primarily in Hong Kong; then France and Germany started making their own plastic versions,” states Zito.

This music box globe holds a figure of an angel and has a base embellished with jewel-like details.
These older versions are distinguished by detailed molded-plastic scenes and the presence of a name plaque inside the dome. “The name plaque is important because it absolutely identifies the location; there’s no question where the snow globe is from,” Zito says. “There are some snow globes without name plaques and, even if the replica inside represents what’s at the location, the name plaque gives it total value, puts it in context.”

The plastic domes with the name plates are highly collectible, in large part because they are rare. Consider that, once the excitement of a vacation dulled, the seemingly cheap plastic souvenirs were likely tucked out of sight and eventually tossed. And, of those that were spared, many represent landmarks, locales and businesses that are now shuttered.

If you just can’t wrap your head around the value of a plastic snow dome, newer glass snow globes are also collectible, Zito says. “Some of the international ones were only made from glass. And, since about 2000, glass globes on sculpted resin bases have been issued for various cities. Some of these are cities where they’ve never been issued before. I have one from Kuwait, Tibet, Malaysia and so on. They’re colorful and they’re sculpted; they have a folk art feeling.”

Sasha Obama likely has more than a few of these newer glass globes; her dad brings home a globe for the young collector whenever he travels. Glass snow globes issued by Disney also are collectible, and there are hundreds to choose from. Christmas-themed globes can help shape memories during the holidays, and they are likely to be considered extra special since they are only brought out once a year. There also are musical snow globes, political snow globes, snow globe rings, snow globe pencil cups, do-it-yourself snow globes, Star Wars snow globes, religious globes, and key chain, picture frame and ornament snow globes. As it turns out, there’s a little wintry wonderland for everyone.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: The glass dome of this piece serves as the night sky for Santa and his reindeer-pulled sled. The globe sits on a wooden base and is from a private collection. • It’s a winter wonderland for Santa, Frosty the Snowman and a bundled-up penguin inside this whimsical globe. • Many snow globes are themed after places or events. Pictured here are wintertime in New York City (lower right), a commemorative globe from the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (lower left)
Consider this:
• Snow globes don’t have to be spherical. They can be domed, conical, cylindrical, oval or bottlelike. “Figural” refers to shape, as well. A figure of Santa, for example, might include a snow globe in place of his sackful of toys. “Character” snow globes, on the other hand, feature a well-known cartoon, TV or movie character inside the globe. Some are a cross between the two. “Those are a desirable category,” says collector Andy Zito.

• New or old, snow globes should be kept out of direct sunlight to prevent fading and, believe it or not, fires. It’s happened at least once. Last year, in Milwaukee, snow globes left on a windowsill directed a sunbeam onto the back of a couch and, slowly but surely, ignited it.

• It is possible for water to yellow with age, or even evaporate in older models. Also, dust and algae can contaminate the water; however, it can be replaced by hand in certain models and with the proper tools. While the condition of a piece matters when collecting older snow domes, rarity matters to a greater extent. “The more rare one is, condition becomes less of an issue, because if you find something you’re never going to see again, you get it,” Zito says.

Also themed after places or events. Pictured here is a moose globe from Anchorage, Alaska, from a private collection.
Where to buy
Airports;;;;; gift shops at amusement parks; museums; national monuments;;;; souvenir shops roadside attractions.
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