The Accidental Invention of the Snow Globe
In 1900, an Austrian inventor set out to improve the electric lightbulb—what he invented was a magical winter-themed toy loved by all.
A snow globe captures the magic of winter. Turn one on its top, give it a light shake, and watch a whirling gust of snowflakes alight to the dusty ground within the crystal-clear orb. Inside, you might find a smiley-faced snowman, a pair of elegant dancers, a rosy-cheeked child, a forest of evergreen trees. For a passing moment, time stands still.
The snow globe is a toy loved by children and adults alike. For children, it reminds them of magic and for adults, it stirs up feelings of nostalgia for those cold winter days playing in the snow and the magic we once believed in. But that wasn't always the vision, says Erwin Perzy III. He is the grandson of Erwin Perzy, who is widely regarded as the inventor of the first-ever snow globe or "schneekugel."
How the Original Snow Globe Was Made
In the late 19th century, Erwin Perzy was a producer who specialized in surgical instruments. He worked in a small home on the countryside outskirts of Vienna and the last thing he set out to make was a toy. Rather, his tinkering was to invent a brighter light source. "My grandfather tried to improve Edison's lightbulb to make it even better," Perzy tells us. "He mounted a solid glass lens in front of the lightbulb to get more magnification of the light. A solid glass lens was very expensive these days (around 1900) and therefore, he employed a water-filled glass globe instead of the lens. To get more reflection, he poured glass powder (glitter) into the water, but the powder sank rapidly to the ground."
He needed to find another material—one that would stay afloat in the liquid.
"One day, he found semolina in the kitchen of his mother," Perzy says. "He poured this powder in the water and it started 'snowing' in the water globe." Hence, the magical semblance of snowfall. This coarse, crumbly product otherwise used in pasta and breakfast cereals, inspired a moment of creativity that would bring happiness generations to come. When he created the first snow globe, it measured 40mm in diameter, in tribute to the natural beauty of Vienna.
Modern Day Snow Globes
Now, snow globes are made by different producers around the world, but the original design has stayed in the Perzy family. "These days we produce about 200,000 globes a year," Perzy says proudly. "The newest design is always my favorite."
They have since expanded their line by producing globes in four sizes (ranging from 25mm to 120mm) and one-offs as special gifts to people such as former President Bill Clinton. Their 250-year-old shop doubles as a museum and a workshop.
So, is the snow still made of semolina? It's a family secret. Perzy describes it simply: "The magic of a snow globe is the wonderful world inside."