Snow globes stemmed from an experiment that failed. (Snow Globe Museum )
Reporting from Vienna — The snow globe museum in Vienna reveals the history of one of the world's most beloved souvenirs.
A childhood toy, a delightful gift, a keepsake. Snow globes seem almost timeless. But a visit to an obscure museum in Vienna reveals the origins of one of the world's most beloved souvenirs.
The Snow Globe Museum is a little treasure off the beaten path — hovering on the edge of the city, but easy to reach with public transportation. To the visitor, only a small sign on the door gives indication of what lies inside.
Once you're at the Snow Globe Museum, a staff member will give a 20-minute tour. The start is in the room where the snow globe was invented. Photos, framed documents and tools are on display. A step-by-step demonstration on how snow globes are made is also given. At the end of the tour, guests can purchase special souvenirs that honor their visit.
Most striking of all, however, is hearing how some of the first snow globes came to be more than 100 years ago
At the turn of the 20th century, a surgeon asked Erwin Perzy, a medical instrument technician, to make the Edison light bulb brighter for his operating room in Vienna. Perzy drew inspiration from shoemakers, who would fill a globe with water and place it in front of a candle to magnify lighting. To further enhance the effect, Perzy filled the water globe first with tinsel, then with white grit, to reflect the bulb's light. Unfortunately, the idea failed. The added particles floated to the bottom and no longer increased light.
But the effect Perzy created with the white grit fascinated him. It reminded him of falling snow.
As Perzy experimented with the water globe, a souvenir handler and friend asked him to make a miniature of the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary (to this day, the basilica is the most important pilgrimage site in Austria). Using pewter from his medical instruments shop, Perzy created the miniature. He then decided to place the miniature in the glass water globe with the white grit. The first snow globe was invented.
Perzy knew he was onto something. In 1900 he got a patent for his "Glass Globe With Snow Effect." From 1900 to 1905, Perzy played around with different scenic miniatures and different white material to mimic snow.
In 1905, he was finally satisfied with his idea. He founded Firm Perzy and started to manufacture the snow globe in Vienna with great success.
In 1908, his invention caught the attention of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I, who gave Perzy a special award for his designs as a toymaker. The snow globe was an official hit.
The idea of the snow globe wasn't entirely new, however. During the Paris World Fair of 1878, an object resembling the snow globe was displayed. Perzy, unaware of this, tinkered on with his experiment, giving the keepsakes the push they needed.
Perzy's descendants continue on with the family legacy. Erwin Perzy II was the first to export the product to America. Around 1990, Erwin Perzy III renamed Firm Perzy the Original Viennese Snowglobe and opened the Snow Globe Museum.
Expansion continued and special orders were requested. The company was commissioned to create a snow globe filled it with confetti from Bill Clinton's inauguration party. A replica of the original is in the Snow Globe Museum. The company was also commissioned to create a snow globe for President Obama's younger daughter as a special gift.
Today, 200,000 of the original snow globes are produced yearly in Vienna. There are over 2,000 different scenes to choose from, and all are hand-painted. If that doesn't satisfy, Perzy III, a machinist by trade, makes whatever miniature model his customers want in the same building where his grandfather started the company more than 100 years ago.
Snow Globe Museum, 87 Schumanngasse, Vienna; 011-43-1-486-4341, http://www.viennasnowglobe.at. Admission is free.