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Travel: Giving snowdomes a fair shake

Sunday, October 08, 2000

By David Bear

Joseph Garaja is a local hero of mine, even though I know hardly anything about him. We should build a monument to him on the Point. If we do, it should be covered in plastic and filled with water flecked with faux snow.

 

Call them snowdomes, snow globes, shakies or blizzards in a bottle, those hollow glass or plastic, liquid-filled spheres containing figurines and fake flakes may be the ultimate in kitschy travel souvenirs.

Now these items are not to be confused with tonier objets d'art, solid glass paperweights and fine hollow glass globes, both of which have a considerably longer and more distinguished history.

In the early 1800s, French artisans began to perfect the creation of solid glass paperweights embedded artfully with all manner of colorful objects, much as is now done with Lucite. Meanwhile, in Central Europe, craftspeople were blowing graceful glass domes to protect and magnify all sorts of items, from religious relics to clockwork movements. Both of these art forms became and remain highly collectable, with finer antiques now worth considerable sums.

Water-filled globes represent a merger of those two strains. The idea of filling hollow glass spheres with airless fluids apparently also started with the French, although the idea spread quickly. The Report of United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878 describes a snowdome scene on sale, but these were very pricey items.

 
 

Host of "The Traveler's Journal," David Bear can be heard each weekday at 8:59 a.m. and 5:59 p.m. on WDUQ-FM (90.5)or on the Web at www.travelers
journal.com
. Readers can send e-mail to dbear@post-gazette.com.

   
 

A decade later, an enterprising Parisian manufacturer got the idea of encasing tiny ceramic models of the then brand-new Eiffel Tower in palm-sized glass globes, magnified them with water and fake snow. Mounting them on ceramic bases, he peddled them as souvenirs of the 1889 Paris Exposition. The inexpensive snowdomes sold like hot crepes. That event was the beginning of the surge in snowdomes as travel souvenirs.

Artistic waterglobes began appearing everywhere. Most consisted of delicate glass globes which were blown by cottage craftspeople throughout Europe and America. Snowstorms, as they were then called, became enormously popular during the Victorian era as souvenirs, toys and paperweights.

But according to Nancy McMichael, author of "Snowdomes," the definitive work on the subject (Abbeville Press, 1990; $27), it was a Pittsburgher, Joseph Garaja ,who in 1927 filed the first of several patents pertaining to the mass production of snowdomes. His breakthrough, which was granted patent number 1,741,692 on Dec. 31, 1929, was perfecting a globe which could be screwed light-bulb style into a base. Two years later, one of Garaja's first watery designs, a fish moving among waving grass, was advertised as a "new and clever novelty" in a big mail-order catalogue of the day.

Garaja's process, which involved assembling the globes entirely underwater, revolutionized the snowdome industry. They went from being expensive mementos individually crafted by skilled artisans to items that could be cheaply mass-produced and sold.

The rest is history. Suddenly, inexpensive snowdomes were everywhere, especially once manufacturers such as Garaja perfected the techniques of making globes out of plastic.

From tacky mementos of people, places and events to the finest glass heirlooms, there's no realistic estimate of how many different snowdome designs have been filled over the years. It certainly numbers in the millions. By the '50s, the world was awash in snowdomes, albeit with ebbs and flows in their popularity since then.

As you might imagine, all that variety has spawned an extensive and active market for serious, competitive collectors, complete with catalogs and Web sites for collectors of serious snowdomes as well as the not-so serious kind. There are committed collectors, four-color catalogues monthly newsletters and online auctions sites and chat rooms.

Now, I admit to being something of a snowdome collector myself. Early in my traveling career, I got in the habit of popping into tourist souvenir stores or airport gift shops along the way, looking for something to take home to the kids. Snowdomes were cheap, portable, easy to pack and, at very least, offered some tangible evidence of the fact that I really had been there. (T-shirts are nice, but they come in too many different styles, sizes and colors.)

Although my kids have always thanked me kindly when I handed over my latest acquisition to add to the shelf, it has always been me who has appreciated and cared for the growing collection. Unlike so many travel souvenirs, which have a way of getting broken or misplaced, this collection has endured.

Well over 150 shakies now line the wall of my older son's room. Now that he's graduated from college and started work in another city, a question has come up regarding where the collection will reside when my younger son takes over his room. You can be sure it will be a place of honor.

Call me silly, but I do have an affection for this assemblage of cheap, colorful plastic blobs filled with fading figurines, fake snowflakes and mystery water. I can't say each one transports my memories to a particular place and time, but at least I have no trouble remembering where they came from.

In fact, I still seek out new shakies when I travel, but they are getting harder to find. There's been a boom in the upper end of the snowdome scale, the skillfully crafted, glass and wood globes of natural scenes that are sold in fine gift catalogs and stores everywhere.

Lots of plastic snowdomes are still being manufactured, you can even design and make your own. But these domes seem to be short-run productions, often used to promote a particular event or product.

What are getting scarce are the tacky $4 to $5 travel souvenir shakies, which seem to have become declasse in the increasingly homogenized airport gift shops. Even the basic, mass-produced, elliptical half globes set on a plastic base with a placard displaying the area's signature structure or sports team are seldom for sale.

I mean, what's the point of going somewhere if you can't bring home a shakey?

I have even relaxed my limits about having actually have been to the place, accepting new items family and friends bring home from their trips. So if you happen to come across some odd or interesting shakey in a distant destination, you know just what you can bring me as a memento of your journey.

And how about Joseph Garaja, who, in addition to revolutionizing the industry, founded a company, Modern Novelty of Pittsburgh. For several decades, it supplied plastic-based water globes and domes of every shape and size and sent them around the world.

To find out more about this unsung hero, I conducted a quick search mobilizing the resources of the Carnegie Library and its most capable Downtown business department, the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and the Post-Gazette archives. All I've come up with is a copy of his original patent and listings in the City Registers of the '30s and '40s that show Garaja used his Pittsburgh residence as Modern Novelty's headquarters.

Other than that, not a word of this man whose ingenuity has so deeply influenced my life. If readers can shed further light on Garaja and his company, I'd certainly appreciate hearing about it. How else are we going to design that monument?



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