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A Playful Distillation of Place: The Colourful History of Snow Globes

Aefa Mulholland

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2023

Aefa Mulholland’s snow globe collection, 1970s to 2010 Photo: Aefa Mulholland

I NEVER WANTED TO BE A COLLECTOR. Growing up, I was surrounded by collections, hemmed in by them. My parents collected a marvellous (to them), suffocating (to me) array of objects. Persian carpets piled the playroom floor. Paintings overlapped up to the sixteen-foot ceilings. Surfaces disappeared under cloisonné boxes, ceremonial masks, ceramic hands, carved elephants. I shared my wardrobe with centuries-old Chinese embroidered robes, my shelves with thousands of dust-encrusted hardback books, my childhood with my parents’ obsessions.

As a result, I have always been the opposite—a minimalist, an anti-collector—my homes kept stark, devoid of anything unnecessary. And yet, for twenty years, I collected snow globes. Snowdomes. Waterdomes. Blizzard Domes. Snow shakers. Schneekugeln. Those tiny water-filled glass or plastic globes, often featuring scenes or landmarks: a place boiled down to its most recognizable essence.

But these gift shop staples, often seen as essentially not much more than three-dimensional postcards, have a far more colourful history than one might think. In fact, snow globes have been a lot of things over the centuries, from toys to paperweights, surgical tools, religious offerings, cheap souvenirs, art, and more.

Snow globes may have their origins in Grimnitz, Brandenburg where German alchemist Leonard Thurneysser is said to have made water-filled globes featuring flying birds in 1572. The first recorded reference to what we think of as a snow globe was in reports of the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition, where water-filled paperweights featured a man with an umbrella, fending off white powder that imitated a snowstorm.

Léon & Levy, Eiffel Tower Snowdome, Paris, c. 1889 Glass paperweight, ceramic base 8.17 x 6.5 cm

Courtesy Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass

Their popular appeal, however, can be traced to Austria in the first years of the twentieth century. Medical instruments-supplier Erwin Perzy attempted to adapt the shoemaker’s trick of using a candle and water to magnify light for surgery. He added glass shavings for more reflection. They sank too swiftly, but white particles of semolina took longer and reminded Perzy of falling snow. He filed a patent and, by 1905, production of Schneekugeln featuring sites such as Mariazell Basilica was underway. Droves of pilgrims bought them to leave as religious offerings. The Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur remains a family business in Vienna’s Seventeenth District, with Erwin Perzy III at the helm.

Snow globes’ mass appeal exploded in Pittsburgh in 1927 when Joseph Garaja hit on the technique of constructing them underwater, making production faster. In the 1950s, when production began to be outsourced to China and Hong Kong, cheaper “flitter” supplanted heavier plastic snow and plexiglass replaced plastic.

Corsica, Montagne aux Marmottes and Space Needle snow globes; made in Hong Kong, France, and China; c. 2000 Perspex, water, plastic, and flitter on Perspex base 5 x 7 x 5.5 cm, 9 x 8 x 8 cm, 8 x 5.5 x 3.5 cm Photo: Aefa Mulholland

The popular conception of snow globes is found in this form—fun, lightweight, disposable souvenirs—something you might find in the museum store, rather than the museum itself, although there are museums dedicated to these balls of whimsy. In addition to the Perzy Factory Museum in Vienna; an Eiffel Tower snow globe from the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle can be seen among the extensive paperweight collection at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah, Wisconsin; and the Ikejiri Institute of Design in Tokyo houses a Snowdome Museum with more than 2,000 examples.

It’s their kitsch appeal, however, that has made snow globes perfect for adaptation by contemporary artists. Brooklyn conceptual artists LigoranoReese (Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese) turned the traditional snow globe upside down with their series featuring swear words, drug names, and deadly sins. In another series, they documented the history of art with globes containing the appropriately-styled names of art movements, such as Minimalism and Dada.

LigoranoReese, Dada snow globe, History of Art series, published by Artware Editions, United States, 2011

Sculptors and photographers Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz collaborate to similarly subvert the snow globe’s childlike nature. The US-Spanish duo fills glass globes with stark, snow- blanketed landscapes with bare, wintry trees and human figures dwarfed by mountains and looming houses, the weight of life’s responsibilities palpable. The New York Times described these tiny, sculpted creations as “miniature three-dimensional scenes of alienation, dread, and dark humor.”

Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz, Traveler CCCIIL, United States, 2019 Snow globe, 7.5 x 6 x 6 in. Courtesy of Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz

For a few years, I made snow globes too. Mine were mostly hand-painted scenes of Dublin—Grafton Street, Dublin doors, the General Post Office—and custom orders of homes in Dublin, Los Angeles, and New Hampshire, although the best-selling ones were those which included glow-in-the-dark dinosaurs or monster squids wrapping themselves around the city’s distinctive red- and white-striped Poolbeg Towers. When I stopped constructing them, I kept collecting.

Aefa Mulholland, Hand-painted snow globes, 2001 Perspex and flitter on Perspex base 7 x 9 x 7.5 cm

Photo: Aefa Mulholland

I never set out to amass a vast collection; that was never the point. At its largest, I had maybe fifty snow globes, mostly the retro “road trip” globes popularized in the US. In a way, my collection’s significance is in the simple fact of its existence—I found something that called me to collect.

I see beauty in these mostly mass- produced blobs. The majority are made in China or Hong Kong, but each is hand-painted, making each unique. Among my favourites are a blue-backed dome featuring a splotchy Georgia peach tree and a grey dollop that could be a plantation home or a roadkill armadillo; a sand-filled, water-less Arizona globe; and a Washington State snow globe, with a red plastic crab wedged on top and its nameplate upside down. I love seeing the human evident in the rushed painting, the slapdash inconsistency, the mistakes that make the maker present.

Arizona, Chicago, and Las Vegas snow globes, made in China, c. 2000 Glass, plastic, sand or flitter on a ceramic base

6 x 4.3 x 4.3 cm, 9 x 6 x 6 cm, 6 x 4.3 x 4.3 cm Photo: Aefa Mulholland

More than a dozen moves have winnowed down my collection. Considering my remaining snow globes now, I’m struck with a brief understanding of my parents’ joy in their possessions. I imagine their eyes falling on an item in their hoard, them thinking of where they bought it, how they felt, reliving that moment as they revel in their carved creatures, ritual masks, and copious carpets.

For such seemingly insubstantial things, snow globes can have surprising heft: when I lift, shake, and watch its falling snow (or sand or glitter) I’m briefly in a marmot-themed mountain park in the Alps, tiny Corsican town, or gas station on a rural road outside Savannah; because, along with its paint splotches and drops of snowfall-slowing glycerin, each snow globe contains a moment, a place, a part of me preserved.

Aefa Mulholland is a writer, illustrator, and the online editor of Her writing has been featured in publications including The Irish Times, Miami Herald, The Advocate and Prism International.


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