A History of Snow Globes December 06, 2015
The real wonder of snow globes is how long it took to invent them. Made of low-tech glass and water (or some other clear liquid) and operated through the simple mechanics of shaking, these popular objects could have emerged centuries ago. Yet they have been with us only since Victorian times. The first artifacts that looked like snow globes are said to have appeared at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1878. Historically, even the “snow” in a snow globe is a humble material. The first patented snow globes, which date from 1900, created their blizzard-like effects with farina—yes, Cream of Wheat.
As it happens those snow globes did come about in response to a new technology, but only indirectly. Erwin Perzy, a medical devices technician in Vienna, was looking for a way to increase the intensity of Edison light bulbs for use in surgery. Perzy experimented with water-filled glass vessels placed in front of the bulbs. Thinking that the addition of tiny white particles would help the solution reflect light, he introduced farina and watched the grains whirl and settle at the bottom of the container.
A blizzard was born, but it needed a wintry scene. At the request of a friend who sold souvenirs, Perzy had sculpted a tiny pewter model of the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, a cherished Austrian monument. He embedded the miniature in the globe, and for 40 years, his business, Firm Perzy, made snow globes that exclusively depicted churches. Later, he contributed the globe with snow-covered cabin to the 1941 film classic “Citizen Kane,” one of the most famous props in the history of cinema.
The next generation expanded the designs. Today, Perzy’s descendents continue to run the company, now called Original Viennese Snowglobe, but no longer use cereal for flurries. Their “snow,” also known in the industry as “flitter,” is made of a proprietary material that remains a mystery.
Of course there is no limit to a snow globe’s contents and certainly no requirement that they have anything to do with winter. And while snow globes are frequently designed and marketed as souvenirs, they aren’t always particularly heart-warming. One artist’s snow globe offered a coal power plant showered by black flakes of “pollution.” Another commemorated the 1978 John Carpenter movie “Halloween” with a model of Jamie Lee Curtis sprinkled in red shreds of “blood.” Andrew Coates, a designer, created a souvenir New York City snow globe containing an empty plastic bag floating like trash borne by the wind.
Today’s snow globes vary widely in their functions, too. They can be found dangling from evergreens as holiday ornaments, harboring electric lights that turn them into actual lamps, studding shirt sleeves as tiny cufflinks and sitting atop kitchen timers, like this gnome holding a bag of groceries amid a flurry of tiny carrots.