France | Life + Culture

Snow Globes: A Very French History

A paperweight, a festive ornament, a collector’s item, a holiday souvenir, and a symbol of innocence, the snow globe is a timeless product depicting the yearnings of an imaginary world. Creating childhood’s wintery dreamland, the snow globe is a perfect example of a magical world that fits in the palm of your hands, suspended in a time different from ours. 

Everyone has seen and bought one at one time or another. Mass-produced across the world, the snow globe has become an emblem of childhood memories and a metaphor for the days gone by in literature and on screens.

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illustration of a snow globe

The beginnings

Often considered a French decorative object, the snow globe (or boule à neige in French, literally meaning ‘snow ball’) was likely derived from heavy glass paperweights which were quite a rage in the late 1800s. While the glass paperweights were produced with expensive materials making them a luxury item, the snow globes were a cheaper option that also entranced the viewers with the enclosed world.

The origin story of the snow globes is a little blurry with no official records stating the first creation. The first mention of the snow globe can be dated back to the Paris Exposition of 1878. In a report written by the deputy secretary of the American commission on works in glass documenting the Universal Exhibition in Paris, the first snow globe was described as

Paperweights of hollow balls filled with water, containing a man with an umbrella. These balls also contain a white powder, which, when the paperweight is turned upside down, falls in imitation of a snowstorm.

Paris Snow Globes

The Paris Exposition welcomed more than 52,000 artisans from all over to display their fine and dandy productions to the world. It is believed that at least 7 artisans in the exposition presented the snowball, therefore it is likely that the invention of the snow globe predates the first mention in the exposition. 

11 years later at the Paris Exposition 1889, the visitors came from every corner to witness the marvelous steel structure of the Eiffel Tower. Created to commemorate the inauguration of the tower and the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, the first iconic snow globe showcased the Eiffel Tower under the snow. From here on, the concept of snow globes as travel souvenirs was widely accepted throughout Victorian Europe.

From Europe To America

While snow globes were no longer a novel concept, an Austrian surgical instrument maker named Erwin Perzy independently popularized the globe by accident while trying to create a better version of the shoemaker’s globe (a glass bulb filled with water used by craftsmen to create a concentration of light on their work). Perzy experimented with different materials such as glass shavings and semolina to boost the light. The suspension and the slow descent of semolina reminded him of snowfall and led to his invention of a snow globe. 

snow globes at a Christmas market

With intense trial and error, Perzy gave birth to a whole new industry of high-quality snow globes. He established his snow globe factory along with his brother Ludwig in 1905, and also became the first person to obtain a patent for “a glass globe with snow effect”. While the formula for his signature globes is a trade secret, it is said that a Perzy ‘snowfall’ lasts around two minutes, unlike its lower-quality imitations.

The 1920s brought the snow globe to America where it instantly became a collector’s item. In 1927, Joseph Garaja applied for a patent in the US and created a new underwater assembly line wherein the globes would be completely filled with water. This process was time and cost-efficient and ended up making the snow globes more accessible.

The miniature scenes inside the globes started to see a shift from the 1940s – the festive and religious scenes were replaced by travel destinations and advertisements of hotels or amusement parks. By the mid-1900s, the snow globe was a staple American product used for advertising and improving morale during the Second World War.

snow globes at a Christmas market

The growth of the plastic industry in the 1950s further improved (or rather cheapened!) the snow globe production. Expensive materials used for the globe and the snow were replaced with cheaper alternatives, thus making the product easily available and accessible for all parts of society.

The popularity of the snow globes reduced drastically in the 1970s and 80s when they were declared kitsch and tacky. From the late 80s and early 90s, the globe slightly regained its value and became a hot collector’s item.

The form and the function

The combination of toy-like and mystical elements paired with the surreal movements remains a definitive and signature component in all snow globes. With commercial production, the manufacturing of the globes revolves around cost reduction rather than artisanal craftsmanship.

The globe itself is made up of glass or a plastic resin that resembles clear glass but is lighter in weight. The miniature figurines inside the globe were usually made of porcelain, bone, or metal, whereas today the figurines are mostly injection-molded resin or ceramics.

girl holding snow globe

In the very beginning, the snowflakes (also known as flitter) were made of wax, bits of soap, metal flakes, ground rice, sand bone fragments, or even meerschaum (a white clay-like material). With mass production in mind, the flakes are now composed of glitter or plastic particles.

The liquid inside the globes needs to be dense enough to slow down the falling of the flakes. In the past, water was the favored liquid. Since water alone has little viscosity to slow the particles, alcohol-based additives are used in place to reduce the motion. The liquid for glass globes included glycol, an antifreeze to prevent the glass from cracking if frozen.

Initially, it was assumed that a snow globe was created specifically to replace the glass paperweight but eventually, the globes set themselves apart as festive ornaments with wonderful depictions of faraway lands. With the glass dome encasing miniatures in a snowy atmosphere floating in liquid, the snow globes symbolized a tiny world suspended in time between stillness and movement.

girl holding mini snow globe

The shaking of the globe is the very first step in beginning a narrative performance. The falling of the snow starts an action that ties together a miniature representation of the real world. The partial details of the miniature elements are what begin the narrative in the minds of the viewers.

While the “shaker” can begin ‘time’ within the globe, their inability to stop the snowflakes from descending is what creates an independent fantasy life cycle that can neither be replicated nor stopped. Tipping or shaking the globe resets the time and begins a new lifecycle.

Cultural Undertones

There is something peculiarly mystical about the origin stories and metaphors attached to the snow globes in modern pop culture. The most common reference point to various films and literature which evoke childhood memories of carefree days and innocence at its finest. For all the happy days they’re supposed to symbolize, snow globes in movies rarely appear without a note of melancholy and remembrance of the days gone by. In films dedicated to the younger audience, the snow globe is an enchanting doorway between the realms of reality and fantasy. It reinforces the belief in the creatures of the magical wonderland encased within the glass dome. 

snow globe on a night stand

In some cases, the snow globe is a critical element of dark humor used to enact ghastly plots and scenes. In such scenarios, the magical snow globes are just as effectively turned into domes depicting constraints of reality wherein smashing the globe and the contents within it are the only way to become ‘free’. After an accidental breaking of the snow globe, the scattered contents and the broken glass is often an indication of a dispersed storyline in the plot moving ahead. 

The fascination with these boule à neige may have reduced but it refuses to fully fade away. Today, snow globes are available at every tourist destination and high-end boutiques, depicting the local famous spots and faraway lands. And while the souvenir shops continue to capitalize on a mystery place the snow globes stand for, there’s a sense of contentment knowing that visitors are sure to take away a blissful image of their stay with them.

Snow Globe up close

Where to buy snow globes in Paris

While most souvenir shops near tourist destinations will have a form of a snow globe, Les Parisettes (10 Rue Gramme, in the 15th Arrondissement) has a wonderful selection of souvenirs depicting the Parisian monuments. You can also find a wide variety of snow globes at the Christmas markets during the holidays in France.

A little bit more…

How about you? Do you collect snow globes? Or ever bought one for a souvenir? Do share!

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snow globe with christmas tree insidesnow globe with christmas themesimple snow globe with white christmas tree

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7 Comments

  1. I really love snow globes, I remember I got a collection of it when i was a child! For me it is so magical!

  2. My friend made a snow globe last year as a gift for our secret Santa, and it was so cute, and I also I had never really thought about making one on my own!

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