Every family has its share of interesting characters. For the Perzy family in Vienna, Austria, that family member was Erwin Perzy I. In 1900, the innovative Austrian created a whimsical item that would touch the world and kick off a family business that spanned generations.
In 1900, you see, Erwin Perzy I invented the snow globe.
The story of how he accidentally invented this delightful creation is the stuff of family lore. According to Erwin Perzy III, the grandson of Mr. Perzy I, it all came about with a request for better lighting.
The Invention of the Snow Globe in Vienna
In 1900, the first Mr. Perzy, only 24 years old at the time, specialized in designing and repairing medical tools. He liked experimenting and trying new designs. So, when local doctors asked him for better light in their operating rooms, he got to work.
Although doctors had electric lightbulbs at the time, the newly introduced lightbulbs didn’t produce much light. Perzy I needed a way to make the light brighter.
He had noticed that shoemakers were using water-filled glass balls or water globes to magnify the light of a candle. Perzy I tried this too, but saw the light was still not bright enough.
The First Snow Globe
But what if he added something to the water that could reflect the light?
He tried flakes of metal, but they sank too quickly. After testing many different materials, he tried semolina flakes, which were used in baby food. This worked!
It also reminded the young inventor of falling snow. One day, for fun, he put a pewter model of a tiny church into the water-filled ball, then added the white semolina flakes. The result was the look of snowfall that delighted those who saw it. A friend took the invention to his store, where it was sold immediately.
And the snow globe was born.
Producing the Snow Globe
Perzy I called his invention, a “Glassball with Snow Effect,” and applied for a patent. He and his brother started production of the small “decorative article”, as the Viennese categorized it, five years later. In 1908, the young Perzy I received an award from Kaiser Franz Josef I for his work on this new type of water globe.
Then two world wars consumed Europe and took their toll on the family business. No one had the money for such whimsical creations. The snow globe invention took a back seat.
As the wounds of war were healing in the 1950s, Erwin Perzy II took over the family business. He worked part-time on the snow globes and part-time at the Kurier, a newspaper that was started by United States Forces in Austria during the occupation.
The Americans, it seemed, liked the Perzy family snow globes. There was something delightful about the small creations. The Americans, though, suggested replacing the churches inside with something more fun.
Soon Perzy II was creating snow globes with Santa Claus, snowmen, nativity scenes and Christmas trees. He starting exporting the collectible snow globes to the United States. The unusual snowdomes were a big hit.
The Original Vienna Snowglobe Factory
Erwin Perzy III is the third generation to run the family’s snow globe business. He was just five years old when he started helping his father at the factory, and he took over the business in 1987.
“I love my work,” he says with a grin. It’s obvious he has a passion for his work. His daughter now works alongside him in the family business. One day soon, Perzy says, she’ll run the show.
Today, the company produces more than 300,000 snow globes each year. All parts are produced and manually assembled in the family’s shop in a former carriage house in the outskirts of Vienna.
Glass Snow Globes
The family uses modern techniques, including 3D printers, to craft each snow globe with care. The snow globes are still made of glass, not plastic like cheaper rivals use, and filled with alpine water and no chemicals.
The recipe for the “snowflakes” inside is a fiercely guarded family recipe, says Perzy. What makes them unique is that they float – or snow – slowly.
Perzy personally creates the molds for each piece. It’s clear that he is an artist, as he shows visitors some of the pieces he’s designed on the computer.
The company produces more than 350 snow globe designs. Many display icons of Vienna, such as St. Stephen’s, the city’s famous cathedral, or its Giant Ferris Wheel. Collectors also search out the family’s work, and often ask for custom pieces.
Custom Snow Globes
One custom piece of note was designed for President Obama and his family. Inside the globe, tiny figurines of Mr. and Mrs. Obama dance, while their girls watch nearby. After the piece was done, Perzy learned that the Obamas had adopted a dog, so he opened the snow globe and added a tiny dog.
The United States is the company’s biggest market. Christmas snow globes are the most popular, but many other collectible snow globes are sold throughout the year all over the country. You might even have one at home.
Companies like Disney also produce snow globes, including musical snow globes. But there is nothing quite like a piece from the Original Snowglobe Factory in Vienna (Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur).
Visit the Original Snowglobe Factory
When you visit Vienna, you can stop by the Original Vienna Snowglobe Factory at Schumanngasse 87 in Vienna’s 17th District. There’s no company nameplate or neon sign to advertise the location, just a tiny label on the doorbell that says, “Perzy.” There are a tiny museum and store on site.
In an age filled with social media, technology and AI, there is still a fascination with snow globes. Perhaps they bring us back to the simpler joys of childhood.