Nothing may be more representative of holidays, winter, and inclement weather than the snowman—three stacked spheres of powder capped off by an inelegant carrot nose and a dapper hat. From the Middle Ages to "Calvin and Hobbes," snow people have been part of our culture for centuries. Check out a round-up of things you may not have known about the season’s frostiest residents.
1. MICHELANGELO MADE ONE.
It’s not often great art falls victim to a thaw, but Michelangelo Buonarroti was never one to abide by convention. When the young artist was in the service of Florence ruler Piero de' Medici, the politician had only a vague sense of what he desired of the artist: Michelangelo was usually sent for his advice on what Medici should buy rather than what Michelangelo could create. In 1494, Medici was finally struck with inspiration: After a heavy snowfall, he ordered the 20-year-old sculptor to create a snowman in the courtyard of his palace. No description of the ephemeral piece survives, though eyewitnesses were quoted as saying it was “very beautiful.”
2. THERE WAS AN OBSCENE SNOWMAN FESTIVAL IN THE 16TH CENTURY.
According to snowman scholar Bob Eckstein, who traveled the world searching for obscure mentions of snowmen in ancient documents and later wrote The History of the Snowman, Brussels, Belgium was home to a sprawling installation of perverted snow art in the 16th century. Dubbed the “Miracle of 1511,” Belgians populated public and private land with more than 100 snowmen in various acts of lewd behavior, which the citizens found uproarious. The figures were a kind of three-dimensional political cartoon, commenting on the lopsided class system of the era. A spring thaw melted their satirical creations, but the boost in morale helped residents in their fight against class separation.
3. THEY USED TO SELL A LOT OF BOOZE.
Snowmen became popular subjects for illustrated print material at the turn of the century, decorating postcards, greeting cards, and magazine covers. Because they could presumably be depicted as stumbling drunks while maintaining an aura of charm, alcohol peddlers frequently used snowmen in print advertisements. After Prohibition ended in 1933, snow-lushes could be seen in ads for Miller, Schlitz, and Jack Daniel’s.
4. PEOPLE SEEMED TO ENJOY WATCHING THEM GET TORTURED.
The snowman-as-stand-in for sadistic abuse was, according to Eckstein, quite a popular theme in the early 1900s. Illustrations of snowmen depicted them being run through by toboggans, pelted with snowballs, kicked to pieces, and impaled with brooms.
5. BUILDING ONE CAN BE QUITE A WORKOUT.
Playing with snow can keep you trim. According to The History of the Snowman, laboring for an hour to build a snowman burns approximately 238 calories. That’s more than dancing and not far from what you'd burn going for a bike ride.
6. A PIONEERING PHOTOGRAPHER SNAPPED THE FIRST SNOWMAN PHOTO.
Mary Dillwyn was infatuated with photography, which was barely a decade old when she first picked up a camera in the mid-1800s. Unlike most shutterbugs of the period, Dillwyn avoided still portraits. Instead, she preferred to capture more candid moments, which led to her snapping what’s believed to be the first image of a smirking subject: her nephew, William. Dillwyn also thought to take a picture of a snowman that had been built in her front yard, which Eckstein believes is the earliest photograph of one ever found.
7. JAPAN IS HIGHLY EFFICIENT IN SNOWMAN PRODUCTION.
Chasing a world record, residents of Sapporo, Japan made 12,379 snowmen in 2003—so many that they actually outnumbered the humans in the town. At night, the candles placed in the bellies of the frosty occupants dazzled tourists. The town holds a festival every February.
8. IT WAS A SYMBOL OF FRENCH RESISTANCE.
During a lull in the Franco-Prussian War in December 1870, several soldiers in the French National Guard who came from artistic backgrounds decided to mount a monument to their pursuit of independence. Under the leadership of Alexandre Falguiere, they crafted a 9-foot-tall snow woman dubbed La Resistance. Looming over a cannon and standing nude, arms crossed, La Resistance became a national symbol for the movement even after it melted: Press flocked to it, and other artists sketched it.
9. A RARE FROSTY CARTOON PRECEDED THE 1969 CLASSIC.
Everyone is familiar with Jimmy Durante and Rankin-Bass’s Frosty the Snowman animated special from 1969. But in 1954, Chicago television station WGN asked animation director Bob Cannon to produce a three-minute version of the story—based on the popular song that debuted in 1950—to air on their local affiliate station.
10. THE SWISS PREFER TO BLOW THEM UP.
Zurich, Switzerland ushers in the arrival of a spring with an annual display of snowman pyrotechnics.Their Sechseläuten festival climaxes with the Burning of the Böögg—the “Böögg” being a giant snowman effigy made of wood and stuffed with fireworks. Once he’s ignited, the townspeople wait to see how long it takes for his head to explode. The shorter the time, the nicer the coming warm weather is expected to be.
11. THERE MAY BE IDEAL CONDITIONS FOR BUILDING ONE.
According to the engineering journal Industrial Engineer, a “perfect” snowman is best attempted when snow is around 30 degrees to provide for ideal moisture content. Proportion is crucial as well: A three-story snowman should consists of spheres ascending from 3 feet in diameter on the bottom to 1 foot on top; 2 inches of snow on the ground is best, since that will be your building material resource.
12. MAINE HOSTED THE WORLD’S LARGEST SNOW WOMAN.
In 2008, snow enthusiasts and the chamber of commerce in Bethel, Maine concocted a plan to erect the world’s largest snow person. Thirteen million pounds of powder were used to create an approximately 122-foot-tall entity dubbed Olympia. Volunteers used 27-foot-long pine trees for her arms instead of branches; car tires shaped her mouth. She melted that July.
Additional Sources: The History of the Snowman.