For the Ultimate Holiday Snow Globe, Go Straight to the Viennese Source
Austria's Perzy family has been peddling their dazzling—and accidental—creation for more than a century.
The most popular souvenir at the Original Vienna Snow Globe Factory and Museum—AKA Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur—is, as you might guess, a snowman. And though some choose to shake his watery chamber to get the full effect, that’s actually a misguided technique. Rather, to experience the real magic of a schneekugel, flip it over, and wait for the flecks to pool. Then turn it right side up, and watch the confetti float down languidly, bathing your snowman in his own personal blizzard. (The fact that the blizzard is theoretically made of the snowman’s flesh is probably best ignored.)
The snowman is adorable, sure, but I have my eye on a globe of a very different motif. Here, in this museum and store stuffed with memorabilia, the snowy piece of kitsch I’m focused on captures a very recent era. It’s clear, gloriously bulbous, filled with those pulverized white flecks, and awash in the finest Viennese mountain spring water. And in the center, piled on a hospital blue base, are toilet paper rolls. While most of the institution’s snow globes resemble collectible favorites from childhood, this one was created in 2020.
“I heard on the TV or internet that [during the pandemic lockdown] people were buying toilet paper like crazy,” explains Erwin Perzy III, a man who assumes virtual royalty as the grandson of Erwin Perzy, designer of the first snow globe, and whose family still runs the business. Playing around on the computer one day, Perzy III designed a corresponding globe intact with requisite holiday flair. “I painted a toilet roll and mounted it around the snowman,” he says. “He was just looking out at a bunch of toilet paper rolls.”
The factory was shut down at the time, so he uploaded his design to the WhatsApp group his daughter Sabine had created for the employees. “My daughter saw this and she called me and said ‘Daddy could you print out one toilet paper roll and mount this in the snow globe?’” They took a picture, put it on Facebook, and it was so popular that they decided to add it to their online shop.
“20 minutes later, the shop broke down,” says Perzy. “Because, in this 20 minutes, we sold 1,600 snow globes.” The curious bit of holiday decor ended up being the year’s bestseller, and they’ve sold 16,000 of the design to date.
It was a happy accident, which seems to be a theme in the land of snow globe manufacturing. But perhaps the most famous accident of all was how the snow globe came to be.
A brilliant past
Once the crown jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna has always been a town of creators and artisans, from Mozart to Freud to Egon Schiele and his mentor Gustav Klimt (a recent target of climate activists inside the city’s Leopold Museum). The Wiener Werkstätte, a collective of artists in the 1920s born of the Vienna Secession, was the longest-running design movement of the 20th century, and it was in Vienna that Hitler applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and was rejected—twice. Some historic high-brow designers still maintain storefronts modern day visitors can peruse, like the glass ephemera and chandeliers of J. & L. Lobmeyr, founded in 1823, silver from the Wiener Silber Manufactur dating back to 1882, and the 1718 porcelain company Augarten so significant, with clients including Habsburg Empress Maria Teresa herself, that the lower level of the shop is designated a museum. (For an enthusiastic tour of these stores today akin to museum-hopping, Shopping With Lucie! is your gal.)
And then there’s the humble, delightful snow globe, a childhood trinket and symbol of the holidays, an item at once fitting with the local traditions, but in more ways an outlier. And that all began with its accidental invention.
In the late 1800s, a young Viennese designer named Erwin Perzy indulged his fascination for toys by building a workshop in his parents’ home. Perzy grew up to become a surgical instrument mechanic by trade, but never lost his love of toys, continuing to tinker with models in his free time.
One day at work, he was asked by a surgeon to create a brighter lighting system than the then-new Thomas Edison lightbulb for their operating rooms. He took a Schusterkugel, or a water-filled glass ball that shoemakers and other craftsmen used to focus illumination, and began experimenting with materials that might intensify the light. One of those materials was a semolina substance that did nothing for illumination, but when it fell to the bottom, was transcendently reminiscent of snow.
Simultaneously, Perzy was helping a friend create a miniature model of the Austrian countryside Maria Zell Church to be sold as a souvenir. He looked at his ball of water and thought, ‘Hey, why not put the church in a snowy globe?’ It would not only magnify the religious iconography, but would also evoke a pleasing winter tableau. His globes subsequently became an instant hit among the upper echelons of society, those that could afford the twinkling handcrafted ornaments.
He patented the design, which he called the “glassball with snow effect,” or schneekugel, and partnered with his brother to open a business in 1900. After playing around with different recipes for snow (an eventual mixture of wax and plastic whose exact measurements is a closely guarded family secret), he opened Firm Perzy in 1905, later named Original Vienna Snow Globes. The company grew rapidly, and in 1908, Perzy received an award from Kaiser Franz Josef I for his work.
By the 1920s, Perzy’s globes were being exported to countries around the world. And though the two world wars sidelined distribution, by the 1950s, things were back on track. That was when Erwin Perzy II took over the business and moved it to the former carriage house where it operates today, nestled in the nondescript 17th district neighborhood. It could be easily missed if not for the snowy sign that reads Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur. Look closely, and you’ll also see decals of snow globes pinned above a line of windows.
It should be noted that the Perzy snow globe was not really the first of its type. Glass ball paperweights were quite popular at the time, and there's a record of a glass company showcasing paperweights comprising hollow balls filled with water in the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition. The ball in question featured a man with an umbrella posing beneath powder that fell like snow. But Perzy, ever the savvy businessman, was the first to patent the idea, and so the Perzy snow globe took off.
Today, the Austrian company makes about 300,000 snow globes each year, shipped all over the world with profits split between factory designs and custom orders. Only the glass bulbs, which come in five different sizes, are made elsewhere, with all the tools made in-house. Motifs are either handcrafted, injection-molded, or produced by 3-D printers, of which they now own nine.
Ask Perzy III what his favorite snow globe is, and he’ll say it’s the last one he made. Currently, that means two very massive ones, fashioned expressly for display in their booth at the Vienna Christkindlmarkt in front of the City Hall. “In one is St. Stephens Church, the most important church in Austria,” says Perzy. “And the second has the Vienna City Hall inside. Both buildings are surrounded by little Christmas markets.” Unlike regular snow globes, these gargantuan versions contain no water. At 31 inches in diameter each, they would simply be too heavy.
The City Hall Christkindlmarkt is one of several area markets where those who don’t have the time to trek to the museum can get their authentic Viennese snow globe fix. (For an original Perzy, look for the words “Vienna Snow Globe Austria” stamped on the bottom of the black base.)
Shaking up–er, flipping over–the future
These days, less breakable plastic snow globes can be found just about anywhere. But the glass ones are more dramatic, used for everything from advertising to plot points in movies like The Santa Clause and TV’s Sons of Anarchy. In the art world, they’ve crossed the line from holiday kitsch to serious handicrafts, with the dystopian works of artists like Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz turning jolly motifs on their heads.
There have been changes on the Austrian front, as well. Two years ago, Erwin Perzy III retired, and, in a first for the lineage, his daughter Sabine took over the business. In addition to being a skilled toolmaker, she also holds a degree in International Business, and some of her first moves included renewing the webshop, updating the website, and creating the Facebook account that broadcasted the toilet paper globes to the world.
A trip to the store-slash-museum-slash-factory is free (complimentary tours must be scheduled beforehand, and won’t be available until after Christmas). In addition to family photographs, manufacturing tools and machinery, and an aspirational photo series of a nomadic snowman globe making his way across the world, you’ll see notable custom orders, including a replica of a globe made for Bill Clinton containing confetti from his inauguration party, and one Barack Obama commissioned for his daughters. Bulbs produced for popular Viennese brands, like Vulcano Schinken or Manner Schnitten, are also on hand, plus replicas of a very famous Perzy globe—one which Perzy III wasn’t even initially aware his grandfather had made.
“A journalist came to my office many years ago and said he found out that my grandfather made the Citizen Kane globe,” says Perzy. “And he brought the idea up to make a replica of this snow globe. I was looking for two years for all the molds from my grandfather, and I could not find this mold. I think this was just a single globe made for this movie.” Some years later, he made a replica mold, and now you can buy your very own piece of memorabilia from the movie’s famous opening sequence. Hopefully for you, it’ll bring happier memories.
Show up during the holiday season, and perhaps you’ll see Sabine in action, or even Perzy, though he’s technically retired. “Since my daughter is my boss, I work much more than before,” he chuckles. It’s a family business, after all.