Snow Globes: Objects of American Culture and Personal Contemplation
Liberty Island Snow Globe, circa 1995 / THF175423
Mass-produced plastic snow globes (also known as snowdomes) are resonant and enduring objects of American culture. They have been sold as souvenirs and collectibles since the 1950s, but their story is nearly 150 years old.
Water-filled glass snow globes were first introduced at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1878. By 1879, there were at least five companies producing and selling snow globes throughout Europe.
In the early 1920s, snow globes were introduced in the United States, where they became popular collectors’ items. An American, Joseph Garaja, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, revolutionized the snow globe industry with a new method of assembly, patented in 1929. Hollywood films launched the mass popularity of snow globes, beginning with "Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman" (1940) and "Citizen Kane" (1941).
Most of the snow globes in The Henry Ford’s collection were mass-marketed to tourists as souvenirs during the second half of the 20th century. Graceland, St. Louis: Gateway to the West, Wonderful Wyoming, and San Francisco snow globes, 1960-2000 / THF189036, THF189048, THF189037 and THF189042
In the 1950s, innovations in plastics and injection molding led to the availability of affordable snow globes for the mass public. Marketed as souvenirs, plastic snow globes became integrally linked with roadside travel, as tourist attractions vied to stand out from each other. Snow globes were popular souvenirs because they were small, portable and inexpensive. Collecting them at each tourist spot turned the travel experience into a sort of quest, and vacationers returned home with physical proof of their journey.
Walt Disney Productions, like many other companies, began using snow globes as advertisements in the 1950s / THF189049
Snow globes also became connected with mass media and advertising in the 1950s. For example, Disney introduced its first snow globes in 1959. European and American snow globes’ popularity attracted the attention of manufacturers from Japan and Hong Kong, who dominated the market by the early 1960s. Snow globes remained strong sellers into the 1970s and early 1980s, then diminished in popularity except as holiday decorations. Snow globes have recently been revived as collectibles.
After a period of popularity exclusively during the holiday season, snow globes of many types — like this Y2K-themed example from 1999 — were revived as collectibles. / THF150785
Snow globes have rich cultural meaning that belies their size, cost and simplicity. They are collected and displayed as personal identifiers, and they engage the mind, becoming tools of contemplation. For more on the various meanings of snow globes in American culture, see Anne Hilker’s 2014 thesis "A Biography of the American Snow Globe: From Memory to Mass Production, From Souvenir to Sign."
Donna Braden is former senior curator and curator of public life and Charles Sable is curator of decorative arts at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator.