Snowdomes are raising a storm in collecting circles


February 03, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Two years ago the hot collectible was lunch boxes; now it's snowdomes -- those water-filled paperweights and souvenirs with figures or scenes inside domes magnified by the water. Turn one upside down and right it again and be mesmerized by the blizzard in the palm of your hand.

A new book, "Snowdomes," by Nancy McMichael (Abbeville Press $19.95), a quarterly newsletter, Snow Biz ($10 from P.O. Box 53262, Washington D.C. 20009) and the promise of an annual convention beginning this summer have precipitated a raging market for snowdomes.

Some snowdomes are over a hundred years old. There are two types -- earlier glass ones and post-1950 plastics. Prices have doubled in the last year. A plastic Lone Ranger has galloped to $100 from $50 a year ago. Wonder Woman is worth an amazing $75. (She is glass and rare.) One depicting a pioneer woman, marked on its base "Ponca City, Okla.," is far from common; it sold recently for $20, up from $4 before the climate changed. Souvenirs from Florida are common, and go for $3 and $4, but souvenirs from Connecticut are rare, worth at least twice as much. Comic characters, World's Fair and advertising snowdomes have been favorites for the last 20 years, and many of them sell for more than $50 each. Plastic Christmas ones are very common and fetch less than $5, unless they are figurals, which go for $10 to $30.

Nancy McMichael made the snowdome market. In the last five and a half years she has bought more than 4,000 snowdomes and has 3,100 different ones on the shelves in her "museum room." The rest she has sold or traded. She wrote the book, publishes the newsletter and is organizing the convention.

"I love snowdomes," she said. "They make me so happy, they are a real trip back to happy moments in my childhood. Every time I find one I feel a sense of wonder. I hope it never goes away."

Ms. McMichael got hooked when she went out to find a snowdome as a present for her boss. "I worked at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington for the curator of Contemporary Art and he had a collection of snowdomes in his office. I was struck by the 'kitschiness' of them and he helped me see them as folk art. When I set out to find one for him, I discovered I loved the process of the hunt."

Ms. McMichael instinctively liked those from the 1950s and '60s, the fragile plastic mementos that were meant to be shaken to death and often got chipped and developed leaks.

She developed a network of pickers by handing out her business cards at flea markets and mailing out form letters to dealers listed in the yellow pages of phone directories. She does a lot of buying by mail. "Five years ago I could go to a flea market and come home with bags of snowdomes that cost a dollar or two apiece. The glass ones might cost $50, but no more," she confessed.

Ms. McMichael looks at these ubiquitous airport souvenirs as a kaleidoscopic image of our culture and history, reflecting who we are and how we spend our leisure time. In her book she illustrates snowdomes depicting the Mayflower, the Liberty Bell, the Plains (Georgia) Baptist Church, Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall. She's got small snow squalls at Jesse James' Hideout, at Old Fort Niagara and at Valley Forge. Mickey Mouse, Jiminy Cricket, Paul Bunyan and the Hatfields and McCoys survive a storm of ground plastic shavings. Snow drifts over Hockey Night in Canada, a horse race at Hialeah and a soccer player in Mexico. Domes plug such products as Jell-O, Mountain Dew and Solid Olsonite toilet seats, "Tops for Bottoms."

Glass ball paperweights were first exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878. A model of the Eiffel Tower was ensconced in snowy water, set on a ceramic base and sold as a souvenir in 1889. By 1900 the Austrian firm of Perzy was making waterglobes that were sold as souvenirs at popular pilgrimage sites, and similar snowdomes were soon made in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy and Poland and sold all over Europe including England. They were exported in quantity to America by the 1920s and 1930s.

The earliest American-made glass snowdomes were made in the 1920s using unpainted bisque figures. Later figures were painted and in the 1930s decals were used.

In the 1950s Kozoil, and Walter & Prediger, two German firms, began producing oval-shaped shaped plastic snowdomes. Steven Kozoil Jr. claims he was inspired by the domed view of a winter landscape seen through the arched rear window of his Volkswagen "beetle." But after a court battle Mr. Kosoil wound up making round waterballs and Walter & Prediger were granted the right to the oval shape and continued manufacturing traditional scenes -- more than 3,000 different ones. Kozoil has been more trendy, licensing Disney and other comic characters.

The decade of the 1960s was the heydey of plastic snowdomes made in the Orient and West Germany. They came in new shapes, including round and flat bottles, little TVs, drums, bells and salt and pepper shakers. Some have moving parts, such as seesaws and ski lifts. Recent ones have battery-powered flashing lights and music boxes.

There's snow end to it.

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