Kitschy, Snow-Filled Globes

They run the gamut from dirt-cheap to pricey elegance. They can be made of plastic, glass, or wood. They feature everything from General Douglas MacArthur to Spam luncheon meat to Oberammergau's Passion Play.And to many people, snowdomes are a quaint vestige of plasticized nostalgia, hearkening back to a time of innocence and wonder -- namely, childhood. But to a small and devoted following, snowdomes are prized, sought-after icons of delirious delight."Snowdomes represent the happy childhood no one ever had," says Sharon Jones, co-proprietor of Global Shakeup. Since 1991, this small but dedicated company has been on the forefront of the snowdome renaissance.So where did all this begin? Who came up with the crazy idea for a dome containing figurines, scenery, water, and fake snow (among other floatables)?A Flaky, Shaky HistoryNancy McMichael, widely acknowledged as the expert on this subject, explains in her definitive work, Snowdomes: "The birth date of the first snow-and-water paperweight is as unfathomable as the murky depths of a very old snowdome (or snowshaker, waterdome, snowstorm, waterball, snowscene, or blizzard-weight) itself."What is known is this, however: In the Paris Universal Expo of 1878, a U.S. team of "Commissioners" reported "French exhibitors of decorated glass É exhibited É paper weights of hollow balls filled with water É [and] a white powder which, when the paper weight is turned upside down, falls in imitation of a snow storm."The great Atlantic crossing for snowdomes began in the '20s, when German firms began exporting their snowdomes to Canada and the United States, according to McMichael. Between the World Wars, several major European firms flooded America with more snowdomes than you can shake a souvenir at. The most prominent of these included Perzy, an Austrian company that created the "glass-globe-atop-tall-black-base" model, and Koziol, a German manufacturer that still makes snowdomes today.The first American domes were made in Trenton, N.J., by Atlas Crystal Works, a family operation conceived of by William S. Snyder. Not only was Atlas the first, but it soon became one of the largest designers and manufacturers in the United States.Japan and Hong Kong joined the international snowdome manufacturing cabal in the '50s, and promptly began churning out the first all-plastic domes. These were not only cheaper for businesses to purchase, but they had enormous appeal to consumers, especially tourists. This was hardly lost on tourist-driven businesses; many sold their own domes as souvenirs.Of course, there was a language barrier to overcome, and the speedy mass-production of factories in Japan and Hong Kong resulted in domes featuring some amusing labeling mistakes. "Ironically, the 'mistakes' É became instant collector's items: bald bathing beauties, Eiffel Towers with 'Puerto Rico' plaques, upside-down figurines, ad nauseam," writes McMichael in Snowdomes. Yet the quality continued to improve, and Asian domes of the '50s continued to be prized by collectors.But the boom period for snowdomes came in the '60s. Asian manufacturers introduced a wondrous variety of new shapes, including everything from tiny TV sets to the still-popular perpetual calendar base. Moving figures and objects inside the dome added even more to the spirit of innovation, and even battery-powered lights were built into some. The local souvenir domes practically faded from view in the '70s, but the '80s witnessed the re-emergence of the expensive glass dome. American gift companies worked hand-in-hand with Asian manufacturers to meet the new demand, and the resulting designs became more elaborate, detailed, and artistic. The '90s have ushered in a new era of eclecticism, with both locational souvenir domes and promotional ones being restored to their rightful place.A Snow Lotta Shakin Goin OnToday, snowdomes are more than a hobby. They're a serious collector's fascination -- and an ever-growing business. For snowdome afficionados, we're talking top dollar. A rare dome can fetch hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Much of these transactions take place privately, but there are public organs for collectors to turn to. Snowdome authority and legend Nancy McMichael publishes her own newsletter, Snow Biz -- something of a bible among collectors.Also indispensable is Global Shakeup. Now a burgeoning business with its own Web page, Global Shakeup continues to offer a terrific variety of snowdomes for serious collectors and curious beginners alike. In addition to the rich tapestry of domes they sell, Global Shakeup also makes custom domes and floatpens for businesses looking for a unique angle on promotion. "People are getting tired of the usual items -- key chains, that sort of thing -- and snowdomes are nothing but fun," explains Sharon Jones. Their recent customers include the band Laika and House & Garden Television, whose dome encapsulated a tiny cabin to promote their log-home giveaway.Afficionados are excited about these promotional domes. Collectors include such well-known personalities as actor/producer Corbin Bernsen and L.A. radio host Peter Tilden. "But a lot of more famous collectors prefer to do so in anonymity," Jones says. "It's like a guilty pleasure. A lot of them are 'in the closet' about it, although some have whole rooms dedicated to their collections, like personal shrines." What are the most popular domes? "Figurals, obscure locations, old tourist traps, and anything older and rare," says Jones. "We actually keep a big file of special requests from our customers -- often, they're special domes they remember from their childhoods. Often, we're actually able to find them, thanks to our international network of contacts. And you should see how people light up when we tell them we've found that unique snowdome they had when they were young."So You Wanna Be A Shaky Dome Star?Collectors are constantly on the lookout for obscure, unique domes. There have been so many manufacturers over the decades that no one knows exactly how many different domes exist. "New" ones are continually discovered. One resource that is utterly indispensable to collectors is McMichael's newsletter, Snow Biz. First published in the fall of 1990 (after the release of her book on the subject), Snow Biz is about to unveil its 30th quarterly issue. "It's the only international newsletter about snowdomes," says McMichael.In fact, the growing demands of her full-time job, the newsletter, and her family have conspired to urge McMichael into selling off much of her 6,000-plus dome collection. "I have a treasured few of 500 or so that I won't sell," she says. "But the rest are on the block." Included in this amazing collection is even a dome from the Kuwait Hotel that features its fax number. "People are flying in from all over to look them over and make their offers," she says. But whether you've got a couple on the coffee table, an odd one on your TV set, or that silly thing that your colleague brought back from Hawaii sitting on your computer at work, snowdomes are fun expressions of classic American kitsch. But they're nothing to shake your head at, either. For enthusiasts, snowdomes are vibrant treasures -- sometimes worth their weight in gold.Sidebar OneNancy McMichael:A Snowfile"The first snowdome that I 'responded' to had an Art Deco skyline in the background. It evoked a strong childhood memory. I used to ride the elevated subway in Queens, and the New York City skyline was a powerful, mysterious image for me. This particular snowdome was not for sale, so it started me on a quest. Along the way, in search of that one dome, I found 6,000 others."So began McMichael's pursuit of one of the great snowdome collections -- and snowdome passions -- the world has know. Author of Snowdomes, the definitive book on the subject, and publisher of Snow Biz, the definitive newsletter, McMichael is by day the archivist for a major Washington, D.C., scientific organization. McMichael's family is very supportive of her passion, but they do not collect. "They shop, they tell their friends and colleagues to bring them back from their travels, and they are proud of what I've done, but it isn't a family affair," she explains.So, why does she -- or anyone -- collect? "It obviously meets some deep need, lots of deep needs. Many of us are reaching back to an idealized past, which really defines 'nostalgia.' I read this in an article recently: 'We are all longing for a place that never existed.' " Advice to new collectors, or collectors ready to take the next step up? McMichael has a three-point plan. First, subscribe to Snow Biz. It introduces you to an existing group of enthusiastic collectors with duplicate domes to sell. Back issues contain articles on both plastic- and glass-snowdome care, display tips, people who sell and repair them, plus history and facts. Second, yard sales, flea markets, and antique malls still have lots of snowdomes for sale. Buy what you like, not what you think is "valuable." And finally, let everyone know that you collect them, and ask them to bring them back from places they visit. If they go somewhere exotic, ask them to bring back two, so you can trade it to another collector.Sidebar TwoResourcesNancy McMichael's Snowdomes is about as much fun as you can legally have with a hardbound, coffee-table book. Graced by an actual die-cut "snowdome" cover -- it really contains water and snow! -- Snowdomes is a veritable treasury of information on the subject. You can get yours for US$21.95 from your local bookstore, from Global Shakeup, or directly through Abbeville Press, Inc., 488 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022.Stay current with the world of snowdomes with the definitive newsletter on the subject: Snow Biz. Nancy McMichael's quarterly, international newsletter is something no snowdome fan can do without. The classifieds -- free for subscribers -- are a veritable network of collector buy/sell/trades, and make it worth the read. Single issues, back issues, and subscriptions are available. You can get your four-issue subscription for US$10 (US$12 in Canada) from Snow Biz, PO Box 53262, Washington, DC 20009.Global Shakeup offers a joyous web site experience! In addition to all sorts of snowdomes for sale, Global Shakeup offers cleaning and care kits, a "make your own" kit, and Nancy McMichael's wonderful Snowdomes book. Their catalog is at: www.snowdomes.com. Grab your credit card and go the traditional route at v: 213.259.8988 or f: 213.256.8325. Or send your check or money order to Global Shakeup, 2265 Westwood Blvd. No. 618, Los Angeles, CA 90064.Of course -- as with all collectables -- hit the flea markets, second-hand stores, and auctions in your area. You never know what you'll shake up.This article first appeared in EYE -- an independent news/culture magazine. Samples are available for $3.95 from: EYE, 301 S. Elm St., Suite 405, Greensboro, NC 27401-2636.

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