Saturday, 17 December 2011

Elephant No. 76: Snow Globe

I've always wanted to try making my own snow globe, but I've resisted because I wanted to use a fancy glass globe with base, rather than a glass jar. However, being overwhelmed with glass jars, and completely unencumbered with traditional snow globe materials, glass jar it is.

No one is quite sure when the first snow globe appeared, although they seem to have originated in nineteenth-century France. The earliest snow globes may have started as an advancement on the new glass paperweights of the early nineteenth century. Snow globes were featured at the Paris Universal Expo in 1878, and within a year several companies were producing and selling them throughout Europe.

Often created to commemorate important historical events and landmarks, snow globes soon became popular in Victorian England, and by the early 1920s were being made in the United States. They were also used as advertising premiums in 1940s America, and in Europe often featured religious scenes.

Selection of religious snow globes for sale in Vatican City.
Photo: Cory Doctorow, 2006

Snow globes were initially made with a lead glass dome. The dome was placed over a ceramic figure or scene on a black ceramic base, filled with water, then sealed. The snow was made of tiny pieces of bone or porcelain, or even sand. As time went on, the glass became thinner, bases were constructed of lighter materials such as bakelite, and the snow was made of glitter or even non-soluble soap flakes. The liquid also changed from water to a light oil, then water with glycerine.

The clear part of a snow globe was made of glass until the 1950s, when plastic became more common. Today, snow globes range from high-end wood and glass models featuring traditional winter scenes, to plastic souvenir items available for a few dollars—but don't try to bring that souvenir home in your carry-on luggage. For the past several years, the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration has banned snow globes because they contain liquid. Since no one is quite sure how to measure the quantity—three ounces being the considered the safety threshold—snow globes can only travel in checked baggage.

For today's elephant, I decided to use a balloon-shaped fancy French mustard jar.

Feeling that perhaps the lid wasn't quite festive enough, I painted it with red enamel paint. Not the smartest idea when you only have a day to do something. I should have chosen spray paint instead.

While the enamel was drying (and it took several coats and was still tacky by the evening), I painted some sky on the outside of the jar with glass paint. This part was annoying and I shouldn't have bothered. Not only does the paint retain all kinds of bubbles (although I brushed it on carefully enough that I thought it shouldn't have any bubbles), but it is also a slave to gravity, meaning that I had to keep rolling it around to keep the paint from pooling at the bottom of the jar. It never dried properly anyway, so I ended up scraping the gooey stuff off, cleaning the jar, and starting over.

I had a plastic elephant and a plastic tree in a box of things my mother got at a garage sale, so I decided to use these. I had to cut the base and most of the trunk off the tree to make it fit in the jar, but it still worked okay.

Next, I took some plastic clay and made a bit of "land" for my plastic tree and elephant to stand on. I did this because, if I simply glued them to the bare lid, they'd sit too far down in the jar for it to look nice. If you try making a snow globe yourself, test how your snow globe items look before you get too far.

I then glued the tree and elephant to the base, checking to see how they looked inside the jar before committing myself.

Next, I glued my scene to the lid with silicone. I think you can also use household cement, but I'd already decided that I was going to use silicone to seal the lid, so I used it here, too.

Once all this prep work is done, it's time to add the water. It's important to use distilled water to keep it from clouding. It's also important to add glycerin, which helps to suspend the particles of glitter. I filled the jar most of the way, then it occurred to me that the elephant scene was going to displace some water (thank you, Archimedes). You need a tiny gap of air at the top to allow the glitter room to shake around, but too much air looks ugly, so this is probably one of the more fiddly parts of this exercise. Ultimately I filled the jar most of the way up, added about a teaspoon of glycerin, some glitter, and let the water displace itself all over the counter before screwing on the lid.

I had some rather interesting silver tinsel glitter, so I used that. I also had some fine white glitter with a bit of iridescence, so I added some of that as well. It's probably a good idea to add the glitter incrementally so that your scene is not overwhelmed with a whiteout of sparkles.

When the jar is filled with everything it's supposed to contain, add a bead of silicone or household cement around the lip of the jar and/or lid, and screw everything together tightly. One thing I had totally forgotten is that water in a jar magnifies the contents. I should probably have chosen something smaller, but oh well.

This is a very simple scene, and I would have liked more time to play with it, but I don't hate it. Then again, I'm a sucker for snow globes—even the most heinous of souvenir versions—so I was bound to like anything I came up with today.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephant Island has more to do with snow than elephants. The mountainous ice-covered island off the coast of Antarctica was given its name in 1821, both for its elephant-head shape, and because explorers saw numerous elephant seals on its shores. 

The island is located 953 kilometres (581 miles) south of the Falkland Islands, and 885 kilometres (550 miles) southeast of Cape Horn. It lies within areas claimed by Britain, Argentina and Chile, and has two Brazilian research stations with up to twelve researchers in residence each summer.

The island has little flora and no native fauna, although seals some species of penguin are found there in season. It lacks a safe harbour, so no permanent settlements have ever formed, although the island is well-placed to support research, whaling and fishing.

Elephant Island is most famous as the place where Ernest Shackleton and his crew took refuge in 1916. Having lost their ship, the Endurance, the 28 men reached Elephant Island after a harrowing time on drifting ice floes.

Realizing that there was no chance of being rescued from Elephant Island by passing ships, Shackleton travelled to South Georgia, where there was a whaling station. Taking a five-man crew with him, Shackleton travelled 1,287 kilometres (800 miles) in an open lifeboat, arriving on South George two weeks later. The men on Elephant Island were rescued some four months after that.

According to Shackleton's captain, Frank Worsley, the men ultimately pronounced the name of the island with a silent "t" and an "h" tacked on to the word "elephant", making it "Hell-of-an-Island".

Approaching Elephant Island, January 1962.
Photo: Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA Corps (retired)

To Support Elephant Welfare 
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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