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.'”