Blairsville native loans snow globes for new historical society exhibit
You've probably seen them at yard sales located among assortments of knick-knacks. Some capture sylvan scenes complete with snowflakes fluttering around a miniature landscape; others feature a ceramic figure or a famous landmark and are accompanied by a music box.
Snow globes first became popular in the 19th century, as an outgrowth of glass paperweights that were then all the rage in France. One of the first documented examples of a snow globe was featured at the 1889 Paris Exposition. It included a miniature reproduction of the city's Eiffel Tower, which was opened as a centerpiece of the exposition after less than two years of construction.
As with that early snow globe, modern versions of these decorative glass objects are primarily valued as souvenirs or collectibles. Contemporary examples of snow globes and paperweights are on display through February in the latest changing exhibit at the Historical Society of the Blairsville Area's museum, 116 E. Campbell St., Blairsville.
About 35 of the snow globes come from the collection of Greensburg resident Herb Scribe, previously of Blairsville. Society member and Blairsville artist Joy Fairbanks organized the exhibit, augmenting the collection loaned by Scribe with an assortment of other globes and some glass paperweights provided by several local residents.
Many of Scribe's globes represent various American cities in their water-filled interiors, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Other urban scenes range from the familiar skylines of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Las Vegas to those of less-familiar cities such as Birmingham and Sarasota. Paris and London add an international flair.
Holiday-themed globes include one of Scribe's portraying Santa's nighttime flight in “Christmas Around the World.” In other pieces, a whimsical depiction of Santa forcing a Harley-Davidson motorcycle down a chimney will probably cause many observers to chuckle as will one of Santa golfing.
Scribe began collecting snow globes when he turned 30 and received one depicting New York City as a birthday gift from an aunt.
“I have always been struck by how neat they are,” said Scribe. “Getting a snow globe has become a birthday tradition now. Every year my friends collaborate and get me a new snow globe to add to my collection.”
At one time Scribe's collection contained close to 200 snow globes but he has downsized. Now, he is able to display most of his globes in a curio cabinet.
“Right now I have about 47 snow globes,” he said. “Most are from Saks Fifth Avenue. Some depict major cities of the world like Paris and Rome. One really neat one from 2000 features major inventions all in one globe and another depicts Broadway shows from Broadway's conception until 2000.
“The way I look at it is if I have an interest in something, I really get into it.”
By contributing to the historical society display, Scribe is able to share his hobby with former neighbors.
“I was born in Blairsville and lived there until I was in the seventh grade,” he noted. “Then my father died, and we moved to Clearfield. Every summer, though, I would stay with my grandmother. I never lost my connection with my hometown. In fact, immediately after high school graduation, I moved back to Blairsville.” Scribe remained in the Blairsville area until he moved to Greensburg in 2007.
“When Joy Fairbanks heard that I had the snow globes, I thought it would be neat if other people could see them,” Scribe said. “I think she was shocked by the number of snow globes that I had.”
“I was stunned by the enormity of his collection,” Fairbanks acknowledged, noting she learned of Scribe's impressive array of globes from fellow Blairsville resident Cis Ottie. Fairbanks and Ottie each have contributed a few of their own items for the historical society exhibit.
Fairbanks realized that the snow globes and related paperweights would be a good choice for a new museum display, providing appeal for visitors both young and old.
“I'm always on the lookout for unique collections, and this seemed to be something ideally suited for this time of year,” she said.
“I think many folks are fascinated with glass in any form,” she observed. With their smooth glass exteriors and flaky or glittery “snow” floating inside, she added that the globes represent “more pleasing forms of the icy look.”
Some pieces in the exhibit are marked by elegant geometric patterns or intricate designs that depict flora and fauna of the land or sea — including bees and a jellyfish. There also are some offbeat scenes, such as a scale model of Stonehenge, and keepsakes commemorating centennial milestones — that of the Girl Scouts last year and the town of Hershey in 2003.
There also are some latter-day examples of millefiori (a thousand flowers) — paperweights that use the centuries-old technique of grouping colored glass rods, or canes, so that they form a floral-inspired design when seen in cross-section through the surface of a surrounding clear glass object.
Several Blairsville companies prospered in the late 19th century and the early 20th century producing more utilitarian types of glass.
The West Penn Glass Company, founded in 1889 and purchased five years later by Philadelphia's Whitney Glass Company, turned out glass bottles. The Clark Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company, located along the Indiana Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, made glass components for kerosene lamps.
Spurred by a revolution in transportation more than a century ago, the Columbia Plate Glass Company and successor firms produced glass for automobile windshields beginning in 1901 at a plant along the Conemaugh River.
Paperweights also had a practical purpose when they came into vogue in the mid-1800s — helping to secure the many pages of missives that were created as letter-writing gained in popularity.
But eye appeal also was important for these desktop implements of glass, and the French manufacturers Baccarat, Clichy and Saint-Louis soon became market leaders in this new specialty industry.
Likewise, French companies were among the first to capitalize on the subsequent demand for glass snow globes. The popularity of the globes spread to Victorian England and reached America by the 1920s.
Joseph Garaja of Pittsburgh is said to have obtained the first snow globe-related patent in the United States. Filed on Aug. 17, 1927 and approved on Dec. 31, 1929, the patent application actually refers to Garaja's invention as a paperweight. Though snow isn't specifically mentioned, the application describes a hollow glass globe containing an air-free liquid and “any article of interest, beauty, or novelty, either rigidly or flexibly mounted within the body of the fluid....”
American companies often used snow globes for advertising in the 1940s. In the following decade, snow globes began to be produced with plastic rather than glass domes.
Today, snow globes are produced in various countries ranging from those mass-produced in China to ones that are hand-crafted in Austria.
Among the latter are schneekugel (snow globes) made in Vienna by the family of Erwin Perzy — maintaining the tradition of his same-named grandfather.
The elder Perzy reportedly happened upon a design for snow globes in 1900 when he suspended reflective particles in water in an attempt to create an improved surgical lamp. He used ground rice as a stand-in for snow in his original globes.
Over the years, globe manufacturers have used a variety of other materials for the simulated flakes including tiny slivers of bone, porcelain or non-soluble soap. Small pieces of plastic are commonly used in modern snow globes.
Some globes also may contain liquids other than water. Glycol, a common component of automobile antifreeze, has been used with the benefits of slowing the descent of the “snow” while reducing evaporation that can result in air bubbles inside the globe.
Some modern versions also include electric or wind-up fan blades that circulate the “snow” without having to shake the globe.
The Blairsville museum is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. For more information, call 724-459-0580.
Kevin Judge is a freelance writer.