These wonderful snow-filled objects are a world of fascination in themselves. Just shake one and see if you can resist the silent magic it evokes, not unlike an actual snowfall. Then notice if they don’t evoke the indelible memories of a childhood trip to a famous landmark or kitchy roadside attraction. Old plastic snow domes are America ’s and the World’s premier highway souvenirs.
Birth of the Snowdome
The Paris Exposition of 1889 featuring the Eiffel Tower led quickly to the first souvenir snow globe. America followed up with snow globes in the 1920’s, but most were novelties or for holidays and were crudely fashioned. Later, they were issued as souvenirs, advertising items or keepsakes for events like the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
After WWII came a desire for more fun souvenirs. So, colorfully decorated glass disks and Italian shell based globes showed up. However, by the early 1960’s the souvenir snow globes were taken over by the plastic Hong Kong made snow dome. While these tacky trinkets were crudely fashioned, they had great appeal. They also gave the owner an important scenic replica of that Statue of Liberty, Maid of the Mist Niagara Falls boat tour or Trading Post that entertained and highlighted their travels.
Snowdomes and Roadside Attractions
Snowdomes were linked integrally with early roadside travel. Travel across America in the early days was fun, and a new adventure could be found around every turn in the road. Mom and Pop attractions began to spring up. As motels emerged from early Tourist Parks, they needed to get the traveler’s attention. Early roadside architecture of signs, motels and gas stations began to take the form of imaginative shapes and symbols. The Wig-Wam Motel in Southwestern California’s Cave City had tee-pee shaped cabins. A huge cowboy hat, giant boot, life size dinosaur, oversized Uncle Sam, towering Paul Bunyon and the Ox, Babe, or a full size B-2 Bomber were some other examples of these fun architectural treatments. As the number of cars hitting the highways increased, so did the highways themselves. Turnpikes, Toll-ways and Thruways were born. Oklahoma, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey and New York all established early pay as you go turnpikes.
The thousands of restaurants and refreshment stands needed to stand out from the rest to attract the numbers of tourists now coming by. So entertainment, animals and characters were added to distinguish themselves from the rest. Many early amusement-type parks also sprung up. Some of these early roadway attractions are still in operation today. Clarks’ Trading Post in Lincoln, New Hampshire (www.clarkstradingpost.com), South of the Border in Dillon, South Carolina, www.pedroland.com, and Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota (www.walldrug.com), have entertained and sold many thousands of tourist souvenirs. These establishments had the basic formula for many others to come, and snow domes became the best of souvenirs of their experiences.
Famous landmarks, museums, caverns and caves, missions or old homes of famous people sold snowdomes. So too did the special events, like the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and other International Expositions. These highway hangouts added new character to the American roadside. Themes like trains rides, miniature golf, gardens, trained bear acts, animal parks and storybook castles got more and more unusual and fantastic in their signage and architecture.
While many roadside tourist attractions survived, many did not. The modern superhighways brought the demise of many great Mom and Pop roadside venues.
In 1956 The Highway act under President Eisenhower led the way for hundreds of interconnected Interstate Highways. By 1957 there were 65 million cars on the road. 41,000 miles if these highways were built. By 1960 travelers across America were traveling 400 billion miles annually, (Highway Hangouts, 1997). These, in many cases bypassed the old roadside attractions.
Route 66 still supplied some of that nostalgic yearning of the open road. But for the most part, these new highways spelled the end of an era of great roadside attraction architecture, unusual characters and their kitchy souvenirs, including snowdomes.
Snowdome Design and Manufacture
Ruben Cordova is a name that any serious snowdome collector should be familiar with. For 25 years, from 1966 to 1991, Ruben was the creative director at The Karol Western Corporation in Bell Gardens, California.
The Karol Western Corporation has for many years been one of the three major creators, manufacturers and distributors of souvenirs in the United States (the other 2 being Nanco in Massachusetts and Allen-Lewis Manufacturing Company in Denver, Colorado). All through the 1960′s and 70′s some of the coolest and kitchiest souvenirs were designed and made up by companies like them. Snowdomes, salt and peppers, glasses, penants, ashtrays, souvenir buildings, tablecloths and scarves were only part of their line.
And if there was a king of the designers of these funky items it would have to be Ruben Cordova. “We had our own factories and employed or own specialized silk-screen methods in Hong Kong,” Ruben told me in one of two interviews we conducted. He described the snowdome’s interior molded panels as silk-screened first and then hand painted detailing to finish them off with a one of a kind, folk-art look.
A good example of his handiwork showed up in the whole series of snowdomes from Universal Studios in North Hollywood, California. Every time a new attraction like Jaws, Battlestar Gallactica, Dracula’s Castle or King Kong had to be featured, Ruben was called on to create all new items.
Snowdomes were made up in all categories by Karol Western for Mom and Pop roadside attractions as well as other large amusement parks like Universal. Zoos, Olivera Street, Houston Space Center, Space Farm, Alaska Railroad, Sea Caves in Oregon, Catalina Island, Enchanted Forests, Santa Claus lands, Magic Mountain and Movieland Wax Museum are some of the classic amusements that got Ruben’s signature funky design.
Figurals and Other Forms
As Christmas standing Santa and Snowmen figurals were introduced in 5 and Dime Stores, other standing or seated figures, animals or building shapes followed. Some included inside name plaques to feature a location or attraction.
Like many vintage and antique collectibles, age, rarity and condition are king with snowdomes. A common Washington D.C. snow dome in great condition would still be the pauper. Although figural examples, multiple inside name plaques and unique and rare examples can trump common varieties.
The exception here would be a rare Panda figural, so the Washington D.C seated Panda figural can pump up its price by 5-10 times over its common snow dome counterpart. As rarity increases, condition issues subside.
Rarity in souvenirs is usually determined by customized scenic panels representing remote or abandoned, specific locations. An example here is ‘ The Kingdom of Dancing Stallions California, USA’ snow dome from an amusement park in Buena Park, California. It was in operation for only 3 years and was abandoned in the 90′s. It would likely bring a King’s ransom. Common vintage souvenir examples are in the $5.-$10.00 range. Some rare ones like the ‘Dancing Stallions’ bring top dollar and can bring up to $300.
The images in this article are as follows:
1. The Land of Make Believe, located in Upper Jay, NY
2. Indiana Tollroad, Main Street of the Midwest
3. Clark’s Trading Post, White Mountains, N.H.
4. Roadside America, Sharletsville , PA
5. Universal Studios, California
6. Magic Mountain
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