Snowstorms, snow globes, snow shakers, snow domes, whatever you like to call them, are one of those collectables on which you can spend pounds or pence – the choice is yours. At the top end of the scale, you could pay a small fortune for an antique snowstorm, but an interesting and enjoyable collection can be built up with much cheaper examples. The Snowstorms shown here should all be available for under $35/£20.
Magical, enchanting and very tactile, these little transparent snowy globes have intrigued children and adults for years. It is virtually impossible to pass a display of snowstorms without picking up at least one and shaking it, to watch the snow whirl madly around before gradually settling. Sometimes they are made from glass, though nowadays more frequently moulded from plastic, and each dome contains an ornamental figure which becomes hidden amongst a flurry of snow or glitter when agitated. They are becoming extremely sophisticated, and many contain musical movements, animated figures, glitter, lights or even a mechanism to do the shaking for you. Some hold tiny fans to whirr polystyrene snow from within.
No-one seems to know for sure exactly when snowstorms were first made, but the Victorians enjoyed them and collected them as souvenirs of their travels. Some of the earliest were displayed an ‘all nations’ exhibition in Paris in 1878, and they must have been manufactured for several years beforehand, as the Victorians were very fond of the novelties and by the 1870s were collecting them on their travels. It could be that snowstorms evolved from domed glass picture paperweights – another favourite trinket with people at the time and often bought as a souvenir. Snowstorms were extremely popular in the 1920s and 30s, then again in the 1950s and 60s, when most children would find one in their Christmas stockings. Today, they have re-emerged as a tourist souvenir, on sale at many resorts throughout Britain alongside the sticks of rock and ‘A present from –’ mugs, as well as being a quality collectable sold in gift shops and department stores. Though the word ‘snow’ associates them with Christmas, many have general themes, often summery.
Before the advent of plastic, globes were made from glass, using various substances for snow such as ground-up bone, ceramic dust, sand or ground rice, but today
both globe and snow are often plastic. Frequently, instead of snow, you will find glitter, tiny coloured beads, stars or confetti – and, apparently, the correct technical term for the snow is flitter! The liquid inside is water, often with an additive such as glycol to slow the fall of the snow, so that it doesn’t sink immediately and swirls for a while. Snowstorms aren’t always round – in the 1940s a German manufacture r experimented with various shapes and decided that a compressed oval shape was less likely to break than the traditional globe. Before then, the majority of snowstorms were spherical and could be viewed from any angle, which meant they needed to contain a three-dimensional sculpture or figurine. With the advent of the new shape, half of the dome was painted (normally blue) to create a backdrop, and flat-backed figures could be used, leading to a saving in labour. Now, the backs of the figures didn’t need to be painted and the figures could easily be stamped from plastic. Although globes are still made, the oval shape is very common, especially for the cheaper plastic ranges. Rectangular, bullet, cube, bottle, octagonal, cylindrical, conical, lantern and egg-shaped are just a few of the other shapes encountered.
The subjects of a snowstorm vary enormously. Although we tend to think of Christmas themes – nativities, reindeer, angels, santas, fir trees and snowmen – they can be anything. Particularly popular are Disney characters, often incarcerated amidst elaborate scenes, for example, the restaurant episode from Lady and the Tramp, where the two dogs are linked by a spaghetti strand. Nursery tales are another favourite: the British toy company Hawkins supplies Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, The Frog Prince and Hansel and Gretel snowstorms which are made in Germany by the son of the man who invented the compressed dome shape. He still uses the traditional moulds, methods and hand-painted figures, and the designs date back to the 1950s. Interestingly, many other designs inside snowstorms go back several decades – only recently I saw one on sale containing the figure of a little angel with a fawn, identical in every way to one which I was given (and still own) in 1957.
Other popular themes for snowstorms are advertising, tourist attractions, animals, fish, ballerinas, houses, butterflies and boats. The majority of the tourist-type snowstorms originate from China or Taiwan, and though at the cheaper end of the market, they shouldn’t be overlooked as the designs are often ingenious. Most new collectors begin with the easily obtainable snowstorms, quickly assembling a clutch of cheap and cheerful mass-produced types made over the last two or three decades. There are thousands to choose from, and often the modern designs are stunning.
Many of the most desirable snowstorms originated in Europe. The Erwin Perzy factory, in Vienna, have been producing them since 1900, and their designs are renowned for their simplicity of style, detailed hand-painting, and, especially, the clarity of the specially formulated liquid which allows the ample quantity of snow to stay suspended for well over a minute before re-settling. Another well-known company is a German concern, Koziol, whose globes have been delighting people since 1948, while Walter and Prediger, also from Germany, were one of the first to issue the now commonplace dome-shaped snowstorms. Some traditionalists will only collect the original, glass globe-shape, but the plastic ones can be just as charming.
Many collectors prefer the earlier snowstorms, dating from the 1950s or before, and as the majority of these were made from glass they are prone to cracking. At the time they were mostly sold as novelties for children, and consequently may have been stored in toy boxes or subjected to rough handling. However, a crack doesn’t necessarily detract from t he collectability of the snowstorm; if the crack is at the back or on the base, it won’t show – though it won’t, of course, hold water.
Sometimes, the liquid in a snowstorm evaporates. With care, it is possible to refill them, though bear in mind that as soon as this is done, the snowstorm isn’t original any more, so if you have an old, rare kind, it’s best to leave well alone. If your snowstorm is a modern, inexpensive type, invert the dome and gently remove the base plug, which might have to be levered out using a small screwdriver. The snowstorm can then be refilled with distilled water, bought from garages or hardware stores. It is best not to use tap water, as any impurities or lime-scale will mark the plastic. As the hole is normally small, a bubble tends to form each time a drop of the distilled water is added, and so the easiest way to refill is to use a plastic syringe. When the dome is completely full, firmly replace the stopper, and if necessary, place a small dab of waterproof aquarium or bathroom sealant over the top to prevent further leakage. The majority of snowstorm collectors regard evaporation as an acceptable hazard; after all, the contents can just as easily be viewed whether or not the water is present, although, of course, it won’t snow properly! The best policy is not to refill unless you are confident that your snowstorm is a very common variety.
Recent variations of the snowstorm design are plastic tumblers which use the same principle, but consist of an inner and an outer layer of plastic, with glitter and small coloured shapes floating in liquid sandwiched between the layers. Mostly intended for children, these tumblers frequently contain animal shapes, glittery confetti stars or Disney characters. Also, water-filled games consisting of plastic tanks with push buttons to activate coloured rings, beads or balls are based on a similar principle to the snowstorm toy, and are collectable in their own right.
Snowstorms look particularly attractive if displayed in groups, because many are so small that they otherwise tend to be overlooked. They combine well with glass paperweights, too. The shelf needs to be lit to show the snowstorms to their best advantage, but beware of too much light, or sunlight, which could cause algae to form inside those globes which still contain water. Also, be aware that the sun’s rays when magnified through a glass dome can be a fire hazard. It is easy to build up a collection of snowstorms, and they are definitely popular once more, although older examples are becoming harder to find. One of the latest novelties in the snowstorm theme is a dome filled with water and snow, and which contains an inside slot-fitting to hold a photo. When a photo is inserted, it gives the illusion of being in the snow-filled water, so now collectors can find out for themselves exactly what it feels like to be incarcerated inside a globe filled with swirling snow and then shaken up and down!