Snow Globes

Marit Grøtta, translated by John Durham Peters
Photograph by N. on Unsplash

Walter Benjamin collected snow globes—miniature worlds under a vault of glass or plastic where an eternal winter reigns. When you take a snow globe in your hands and lightly shake it, a short film in 3D format plays. It starts with a full snowstorm, before the snowflakes gently descend and a world gradually emerges. Today snow globes are regarded as closest to kitsch but for Benjamin they belonged to the nineteenth-century repertoire of bourgeois objects at the borderland between toy, media technology, and ornamental object.

Why collect snow globes? Benjamin thought that toys and media technologies could tell something about society’s historical breaking points. Collectors rescue such things from their utilitarian contexts, take them out of their time and into a collection where their material and aesthetic character steps forth. Thus their historical index comes to light. The first snow globes were probably spin-offs from glass paperweights. They were presented at the world exhibition in Paris in 1878. At the world exhibition of 1889, with the Eiffel Tower newly complete, one could buy snow globes with the Eiffel Tower as a souvenir. Later came religious tableaus and bourgeois idylls as if taken from the world of literature. Adorno thought Benjamin’s fondness for snow globes owed to their being a kind of nature morte, petrified traces of a bygone time. But at the same time the snow globe is an early form of media technology—a time-medium where the tableau is shaken up into a blizzard time and time again.

Perhaps it was precisely this doubleness that so fascinated Benjamin. The snow globe’s construction tells us something about how the conditions of sensation changed in the nineteenth century. Here is a miniature world, placed under glass and made untouchable. At the same time, the snow globe is adapted to the hand, invites interaction and thus satisfies the collector’s tactile requirements: the hand holds the ball and turns it gently while the gaze peeks inside. When the snow has settled, it is indeed the same world that steps forth—every time. But the shaking brings possibilities, the spying through the snowstorm provides practice, and the falling snowflakes are full of promises.

Snow globes are small screens that put something on display. They unite stasis and movement, the near and the far, the touchable and the untouchable, the cosmic and the miniature. They are dialectical images tilting back and forth between two historical regimes. After cinema’s breakthrough (and after the smartphone’s introduction one hundred years later) snow globes are mostly for collectors and children.

I have a snow globe that I love. It was bought in Berlin in February 2015 after a long and painstaking period of searching. In the foreground is an adult couple on a sleigh pulled by two horses. He looks like Dr. Zhivago, she like a romantic heroine. Behind them is a barn and some trees and farther back is a village where a church spire rises. Hindmost stand high mountains, a starry sky, and a waxing moon. It takes between twenty and thirty seconds for the snow to settle.

“Schneekugeln,” Filologen no. 1-2 (2018): 9

Marit Grøtta is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oslo. She works across European literature and media of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is the author of Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics and of the forthcoming book, Reading Portrait Photographs in Proust, Kafka and Woolf: Modernism, Media and Emotion from Edinburgh University Press.

John Durham Peters is María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Yale. He taught at the University of Iowa for 30 years. His most recent book was Promiscuous Knowledge: Information, Image, and Other Truth Games in History, co-authored with the late Kenneth Cmiel. He likes to dabble with language.