|By Terry & Doris Michaud
They are known by a variety of names — snow shakers, water domes, water balls, snow storms, snow scenes, snow globes, blizzard domes and snow domes. Considered by some to be tacky, they are also called kitschy by others. Like them or hate them, it is safe to say that they are growing in popularity in the collectors’ world by leaps and bounds.
Lucy Summers, a British collector declares that “they are perfect, little, untouched worlds that remind you of the lost simplicity of childhood. The more absurd they are, the better,” Summers said.
One reason for their popularity is the wide spectrum of choices for collectors. They can be a geographical collectible, covering countries around the world or every state in the United States. A collection can be built around landmarks, World’s Fairs, and historical events as well as famous and even infamous figures from the past. Then there is the field of sports. Every major (and some minor) sports categories are covered.
A collection could be built aound characters or even just Disney characters. Other fields of collectibility include religious domes, animals, military themes, awards and commemoratives. One of the largest and most popular categories are advertising snow domes.
Many of the snow dome categories are considered cross collectibles; that is, they have great appeal to other collectors. For example, Disney domes alone would have great appeal to dome collectors, Disney collectors, and character collectors. Snow globes in a Christmas theme have broad appeal to holiday collectors, Santa collectors, and people who simply love to decorate their home during the holidays with these colorful and inexpensive collectibles. One could specialize in Christmas-themed snow domes alone and never manage to complete a collection. Their popularity was likely increased by the cover of Good Housekeeping in the December, 1942 issue that shows a little girl holding her snow globe and admiring a figure of Santa in a snow storm.
Just in case one of these themes is less than appealing, you might consider the broad range of snow domes that are more than just a snow shaker. This would include combinations in drinking glasses (made as early as the 1920s), salt and pepper shakers, sugar containers, soap dishes, ashtrays, calendars, thermometers, banks and pencil sharpeners.
While snow domes are an attractive collectible because they are usually inexpensive, that is not to say that some of the more rare and desirable domes can be considered cheap. There have been sales reported as high as $1,000. Older glass domes and some unusual designs also can command good prices on the secondary market, but on average, they remain affordable for most every budget.
While a concise history of snow globes remains unclear, most authorities believe they were first crafted in France during the early 1800s, a variation of the glass paperweights of the day. One of the early snow globes was offered at the 1889 International Exposition in Paris and contained a model of the new Eiffel Tower. It was an immediate hit as a souvenir for those attending. Snow globes were also very popular in England in the Victorian era. Sometime around the early 1920s they made their way to the United States and achieved great popularity here as well. The Atlas Crystal Works produced many of the water globes from that time period, as they were well positioned with factories in Germany and America.
In 1927 a patent was granted to Joseph Garaja of Pittsburgh that was to revolutionize the way snow domes were crafted. His process required assembling the globes under water, thus eliminating trapped air. This allowed the industry to go into mass production, thus lowering the prices dramatically. His company, Modern Novelty of Pittsburgh, supplied plastic-based water domes in every size and shape to retailers around the world for several decades.
The “snow” in snow domes has had an interesting history as well. In the earlier glass domes, it was created by using bone chips or tiny pieces of porcelain, ground rice, camphor/wax and meerschaum. In time the glass became thinner and the snow was made of gold foil. Other materials were experimented with, and although today’s manufacturers closely guard their formulas, most “snow” is actually small pieces of white plastic. The liquid has not always been water, with light oil used at one time, and the addition of glycol (antifreeze) helped to address the problem of freezing during winter shipment. In the 1960s a Hong Kong snow dome maker got into serious trouble when it was discovered that the water in their domes was polluted, having been taken directly from their harbor.
Snow domes are also a popular collectible because they don’t take up a lot of room to display them – unless your name is Andy Zito. This prolific collector and his wife have amassed a collection of more than 7,500 snow globes. A resident of Los Angeles, Andy first got interested in them when he purchased a few snow domes as birthday presents for his wife. To say they caught on with the Zitos would be an understatement. In their leisure travels and in his professional work as an illustrator, they developed a keen interest in the older souvenir types from around the world and in figural and advertising domes. Today their collection includes many rare and interesting examples. Andy agrees with the claim that common vintage souvenir snow domes remain very affordable, typically in the $8 to $15 range, although some souvenir domes can achieve greater values. Zito estimates that there are more than 1,000 active collectors worldwide.
Andy said while some collectors might mix old and new snow globes, most prefer vintage snow domes, from the late 1930s through the 1980s. He also said the most popular category is undoubtedly the souvenir domes.
Zito shared some good advice for new dome collectors. “Souvenir snow domes from the 1960s and ’70s hold their interest and value best, but collect what you love and want to hold on to for your own personal reasons.” If you are looking for the older glass globes, make sure they have good decals and high, clear water still intact. Many of the new snow globes can be of thinner glass and surprisingly more fragile, Andy warns. Be aware that the glass globes weigh much more than their plastic counterparts, so shipping can be a factor in buying and selling.
Next time you travel, whether it covers a few hundred miles or takes you across the globe, stop in a gift store along the way and bring back a snow dome to remind you of the trip. It just may lead you to an exciting, fun and inexpensive hobby.
For those who want to learn more, Andy Zito will answer questions on his website, www.andyzito.com/snowdomes, regarding repairs, values and identifying domes. He also maintains an international network of serious and advanced collectors.