Paige Crawford started buying snow globes as souvenirs of her family’s vacations around the United States. Kitschy or not, they trigger fond memories of time spent with her loved ones in places like the Florida Panhandle, the Jersey Shore, New York City, and San Francisco. One of her favorites is from SeaWorld. Paige loves the absurdity of a plastic shark swimming in a sea of snow.
Now that Paige has retired from her career as an interior designer, she wondered what to do with 25 snow globes spread around her office. That led her to muse about how such a quirky idea took off in the first place. After researching the subject on the Internet, Paige learned that the first snow globes probably appeared in the late 19th century, a period when industrialization created a new middle class that started decorating their homes with all sorts of knickknacks.
However, they were only perfected in the early 1900’s as the serendipitous result of a failed effort to create a better light bulb. Erwin Perzy, an Austrian medical device manufacturer, hoped to illuminate dark operating rooms by using an old shoemaker’s trick of placing a globe of water in front of light to help magnify it. Perzy thought suspending semolina flakes as reflectors in the globe might just do the trick. Those lighting experiments ultimately came to naught, but Perzy had a “Eureka” moment that led him in an entirely different direction when he realized how the flakes suspended in water reminded him of falling snow.
Soon, Perzy patented the “Schneekugel,” “a glass globe with snow effect,” which transformed his medical device business into a snow globe empire. Indeed, his invention became so popular in Vienna that it gained the notice of Kaiser Franz Joseph, who in 1908 recognized Perzy with a special award.
The Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur (Original Vienna Snow Globe Factory), now run by the founder’s grandson, Erwin Perzy III, still produces high quality glass snow globes today. Indeed, clients include the rich and famous, most notably Presidents Clinton and Obama, who purchased specially designed bespoke globes. The snow globe President Obama ordered for his youngest daughter was particularly whimsical. Its miniature Obama family seemed dwarfed by a Sacher Torte topped with those other symbols of Vienna, a Lipizzaner Stallion, the Prater Ferris Wheel, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The ever-accommodating Erwin Perzy even reopened the globe after it had already been filled so he could add a tiny version of the family’s new dog. Of course, the creation also included a healthy amount of “snow” to fall in this magical miniature world.
While Perzy snow globes continue to be products of old-world craftsmanship, it was American ingenuity that lowered costs and increased volume dramatically. By 1940, globes started to be sold in the US as souvenirs and were even featured in Hollywood movies as plot devices. For example, in the opening scene of Citizen Kane, the protagonist dies while holding a Perzy globe featuring a wintery log cabin, which then drops to the floor and shatters. Post World War II, innovations in plastic molding, the use of plastic “snow,” and the addition of glycol to water which helped the “snow” to “fall” more slowly, all made snow globes cheaper to produce and ultimately even more popular. Today, most snow globes are made offshore of plexiglass for the tourist trade. Paige’s snow globe souvenirs fall into that category.
After reading more, Paige decided to not only to arrange her snow globes on shelves grouped by vacation, but to place a sticker on the bottom of each referencing exactly where and when they were purchased. So, have Paige’s snow globes that had been stashed around her office now become a proper collection? Yes!
What really distinguishes an “accumulation” from a “collection” is Paige’s efforts to organize her snow globes and record something about them. A collection assumes that an individual has ordered his or her objects according to some specific methodology. In contrast, an “accumulation” may be a gathering of objects, but without any structure imposed on them. The distinction may be a subtle one depending on the circumstances. Certainly, a group of objects that may appear to be an “accumulation” to the untrained eye may in fact be a “collection” because the group has been ordered by its owner in some fashion. Studying an accumulation after it is put together in and of itself doesn’t transform the group into a “collection.”
For example, numismatists study hoards which are accumulations of ancient and early modern coins, but that study does not convert these groupings into “collections.” Although numismatists believe some ancient hoards may have been “collections” of a sort given the variety of different types of coins they contain, most groups appear to be accumulated together by happenstance based on what coins were available at the time. Any study of their contents today simply cannot change the original intent of their owner. So, most coin hoards are accumulations, not collections. And, of course, the same can be said for many such groupings, from shoes to diamonds.
And what about Paige? She became so enthralled with the story of Erwin Perzy that she is booking a family trip to Vienna next summer to visit the Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur. Paige has resolved to purchase a Perzy souvenir snow globe containing a model of St. Stephen’s and the Prater as the first of what she hopes will be many souvenir snow globes from around the world.
Next Installment: Voluntary Returns of Native American Ceremonial Artifacts
Further Reading – On Snow Globes
Kim Hart, A Brief History of Snow Globe, Artsy (December 18, 2018), available at https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-history-snow-globe (last visited June 14, 2023).
Austria’s Souvenir Gift to the World: The Snow Globe, The German Way & More (make sure to watch the videos at the end!) (last visited June 14, 2023).
Original Viennese Snow Globe Manufacture Website, (last visited June 14, 2023).
– On Collections
Collecting, Wikipedia, (last visited June 14, 2023).
Peter K. Tompa is a semi-retired lawyer who resides in Washington, D.C. He has written extensively about cultural heritage issues, particularly those of interest to the numismatic trade. Peter contributed to Who Owns the Past?” (K. Fitz Gibbon, ed. Rutgers 2005). He formerly served as executive director of the Global Heritage Alliance and now is a member of its board of directors. (https://global-heritage.org/) This article is a public resource for general information and opinion about cultural property issues and is not intended to be a source for legal advice. Any factual patterns discussed may or may not be inspired by real people and events.
This article was illustrated with images created using Adobe Firefly, an AI image generator.