A Brief History of Snow Globes

iStock/Wavebreakmedia
iStock/Wavebreakmedia

The way Erwin Perzy's family tells it, if Thomas Edison had designed a better light bulb, Perzy would never have invented the snow globe. 

Back in 1900, Erwin Perzy I was working in Vienna as a fine instruments mechanic when a surgeon came to him with a problem. Although the surgeon had electric light bulbs installed in his operating theater, the newly invented product didn't cast great light. He wanted to know if Perzy could improve on the dim bulbs and make them brighter. So he got to work. As Perzy hunted for inspiration, he noticed that shoemakers had stumbled into an interesting trick: By filling glass globes with water and placing them in front of candles, they created tiny spotlights in their shops.

When Perzy tried the trick with a lightbulb, he discovered the brightness wasn't improved. But what if he added something to the water that the light could bounce off of? Perzy started with white semolina flakes, used in baby food at the time. “He poured [them] into the glass globe, and [they] got soaked by the water and floated very slowly to the base of the globe,” his grandson, Erwin Perzy III, told the BBC. “This effect reminded him of snowfall.”

Inspiration struck: What if he used his technical expertise to create a tiny diorama in his snowy little world? Perzy made a miniature replica of the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in Mariazell, Austria, placed it in his water-filled globe, sealed it, and mounted it to a gypsum base that he painted black. And voila—the first snow globe was born.

At least, that's the story Austrians like to peddle. But what about the snow globes that appeared a few decades before, in another country entirely?

PARISIAN BEGINNINGS

According to Nancy McMichael, a snow globe collector profiled in a 1997 article in The New York Times, the first snow globes were showcased at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition by a local glassware firm. She isn't the only one who noticed. As described in the (exhaustive) reports of the U.S. Commissioners to the exposition, the water-filled globes each featured a little man holding an umbrella, and "a white powder which, when the paper weight is turned upside down, falls in an imitation of a snow storm."

The next iteration of the snow globe came in 1889, again at the Paris Universal Exposition. As McMichael writes in her book Snowdomes, this time the globe—which was the work of an enterprising souvenir vendor—featured a tiny ceramic version of the just-unveiled Eiffel Tower, and the whole ball fit in the palm of a hand. (An example of the globe lives at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Wisconsin.)

“The rest,” McMichael wrote, “is history.”

But it’s interesting history, one that reflects a larger story about how items were manufactured and sold, and what made them popular in the 20th century.

Though Perzy—who patented his globe in 1900—didn’t invent the snow globe, he and his brother are responsible for catapulting the souvenir into the position of tchotchke primacy it holds today. Seizing on the invention, the pair opened a shop, Original Wiener Schneekugel Manufaktur, in Vienna. Today, that shop is still run by an Erwin Perzy—his grandson, Erwin Perzy III—and they still make snow globes, containing Austrian tourist attractions, animals, and Christmas themes, in the same Vienna workshop where the original Perzy practiced his craft.

But it's easy to forget that Perzy was also an artisan. His items were painstakingly hand-crafted. So while his snow globes (also called “snow domes” or “snow weights”) were exquisite and popular, they were neither cheap nor widespread. For the snow globe to go global, it needed to be mass-produced—and that's how America got into the business. 

A MASS-MARKET MEMENTO

In 1927, a Pittsburgh man named Joseph Garaja filed his application for a patent for a liquid-filled novelty paperweight that improved upon previous designs; the design he presented and later sold was a fish floating in sea grass. But it wasn't Garaja’s under-the-sea theme that impressed the industry. His real contribution to snow globe manufacturing was in pioneering the now-obvious method of assembling the globes underwater to ensure they were entirely filled. This, David Bear wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000, “revolutionized” the snow globe industry: “They went from being expensive mementos individually crafted by skilled artisans to items that could be cheaply mass-produced and sold.”

Which they were: In the 1930s, William Snyder, a New Jersey entrepreneur, began selling souvenir globes for $1, around $18 now. Snyder would later earn two patents related to snow globes and his company, Atlas Crystal Works, would become a major manufacturer of the items.

But the big boom for snow globes came, as it did for so many other things in the 20th century, after a little product placement. In the 1940 Ginger Rogers vehicle Kitty Foyle, young Kitty launches a flashback scene when she shakes a snow globe containing the figure of a girl on a sled. According to Connie Moore and Harry Rinker in Snow Globes: A Collector’s Guide to Selecting, Displaying and Restoring Snow Globes, sales of the keepsakes skyrocketed 200 percent after the film came out.

The next year, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane also used a snow globe—containing a little log cabin and made by Perzy’s company—for that monumental opening scene: When publishing titan Charles Kane dies with the word “Rosebud” on his lips, and the snow globe he's holding drops from his hand and shatters. The 1940s also witnessed the dawning of a new era in advertising ubiquity, and brands began making snow globes to advertise their products. Other popular themes included World War II iconography, such as a soldier at attention.

By the 1950s, innovation in plastics and injection-molding meant that snow globes could be made even more cheaply. Even the “snow” that floats around inside the globe, called “flitter” in the business, could be made from plastics—no need to use marble, bone chips, or ground rice anymore (mass-produced plastic glitter, which was allegedly invented in 1934, became part of the snow globe story only later). The water filling the globes was also frequently mixed with glycol, to make the snow fall more slowly, although sometimes it was mixed with far more lethal substances. At least one manufacturer, McMichael told The New York Times, began mixing antifreeze into the water to keep the globes from freezing and cracking during shipping. Stories of children becoming ill after drinking the water from snow globes sometimes made headlines, including one about children who became seriously sick after drinking snow globe water taken directly from polluted Hong Kong Bay.

Despite those stories, the industry continued to grow. Four major companies in America continued to produce snow globes of varying quality and subject including souvenirs, but also holiday globes and novelty gifts. It was a similar landscape in Europe, with a few manufacturers dominating the snow globe scene.

By the 1980s, snow globes were still a staple of the gift industry, but they’d also become the epitome of kitsch—probably because everyone and everything from Disney’s Bambi to the Lone Ranger to Niagara Falls and the White House could be put under glass and forced to endure frequent and bewildering snowstorms. But what does the market look like today? 

A GLOBE FOR EVERYONE

Oddly enough, snow globes remain big business. There is a sizable collector's market for both antique and novelty domes. And Erwin Perzy III’s company is still healthy. The Vienna shop produces upwards of 200,000 snow globes a year, and that’s just a small part of the market. It’s perhaps a mark of how familiar a form a snow globe is, and what innocent—almost saccharine—kitsch they’re meant to be that they can be so gleefully perverted, as this collection of weird, macabre, and wonderful snow globes demonstrates.

So this holiday, consider the humble snow globe as a gift for someone you love. But if you do buy in, remember not  to bring your snow globe on a plane (unless it’s smaller than a tennis ball and can fit entirely into a Ziploc bag). And always adhere to these words from collector McMichael: “'No matter how thirsty you are, no matter how desperate, never, ever drink the water from a snow dome.'”

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.