A Brief History of the Snow Globe
Photo by DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images.
The snow globe: an emblem of winter, a cherished childhood trinket, a gift-shop staple. It’s an object that simultaneously evokes holiday cheer and, for some, eye-roll-worthy kitsch. Snow globes are irresistible for their promise of brief, easy entertainment—plus the added visual delight of the whimsical miniatures found inside.
Yet despite their ubiquity, most of us don’t know where snow globes come from. Indeed, the early years are rather fuzzy—but it is clear that the snow globe traces back to Europe near the end of the 19th century.
The oldest known description of a snow globe–like object comes from an 1880 U.S. Commissioners report on the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition, where a local glassware company showcased a group of “paper weights of hollow balls filled with water, containing a man with an umbrella.” The objects also contained white powder that fell “in imitation of a snow storm” when turned upside down. Such glass-domed paperweights were popular in the late 1800s, but this appears to be the first to include such a playful feature—and it seems to have been the world’s first snow globe.
However, it was an Austrian man named Erwin Perzy who is widely considered to be its proper “inventor,” albeit 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 wanted made brighter for his operating room. Drawing upon a method used by shoemakers to make quasi-“spotlights,” Perzy placed a water-filled glass globe in front of a candle, which increased the light’s magnification, and sprinkled tiny bits of reflective 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—and he quickly filed the first official patent for a snow globe, or Schneekugel. By 1905, he was churning out dozens of handmade snow globes—often featuring 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.
Indeed, the snow globe appeared at a time when upper-middle-class families, newly wealthy following 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 man from Pittsburgh named Joseph Garaja applied for the first snow globe patent there, and with it, he introduced a radical new method: 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) at concession stands across America, and before long, they reached Hollywood. The 1940 Oscar-nominated drama Kitty Foyle, which used one as a plot device to trigger flashback scenes, contributed to a 200-percent increase in sales, according to collectors and authors Connie Moore and Harry Rinker. And in 1941, the Orson Welles epic Citizen Kane featured a snow globe, too—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.
By the middle of the century, snow globes had become an American phenomenon. Brands employed them for advertising, and they were even used to promote civilian morale during World War II, with tiny soldiers becoming common additions. Innovations in plastic production and injection-molding during the 1950s further improved the snow globe—pricey particles used for the “snow” were replaced with cheap plastic “flitter,” while glycol mixed with water helped it fall more slowly. The product 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, one with a miniature Bambi, dates to 1959.
Traditional snow globes have largely remained the same since then, though most are now made of Plexiglas and produced in foreign countries. Still, there’s a big market for high-quality, hand-crafted glass globes: The Viennese Perzy family continues to produce thousands each year, with clients including former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, who had confetti-filled globes at one of his inauguration parties, and Barack Obama, who once gifted an original Austrian snow globe to his daughters.
And despite—or, perhaps, because of—their penchant to be viewed as “kitschy” and “low-brow,” snow globes have recently crossed into the realms of fine art and design. Since the mid-2000s, Brooklyn-based duo Ligorano/Reese have been turning the traditionally child-friendly object on its head with snow globes that replace Santa Claus figurines with cuss words, drug references, and the seven deadly sins. (Ligorano/Reese have also made “History of Art” globes that feature the names of 20 influential art movements, such as Surrealism and Fluxus.)
Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz similarly subvert the snow globe’s inherently jolly nature in their work. In their globes, which have been exhibited at P.P.O.W and Art Basel in Miami Beach, mini-humans live, work, and try to entertain themselves within solitary landscapes dominated by snow and eerie, leafless trees. The result is a striking dichotomy between expectation and surreality: In Traveler 264 (2009), a Louise Bourgeois–esque spider descends upon a man lying in the snow, while in Traveler 293 (2012), a blonde woman is shown bearing the weight of an entire tilted-over house upon her back.
“Rather than discard the typical hallmark winter fantasy scene that snow globes present, we saw the opportunity to infiltrate it and transform it with disquieting elements,” Martin and Muñoz told Artsy via email. But within the confines of the globe, “our darkest fears and anxieties…[are] reduced to miniature, safely encapsulated.”
In our turbulent, hyper-anxious present, placing this once-innocent object in such a cathartic role is understandable, even advantageous. But if you still find yourself craving the short burst of joy that comes from picking up a snow globe with a smiling, dancing elf inside and giving it a shake—that’s okay, too.