Collecting, for me has been a long and winding road. One thing leads to another, interests change, things fade away and then sometimes come back again – with a renewed enthusiasm.
Previously, I mentioned my friend Lee. I loved going to her house – everyone one was happy and laughing, and frankly this kind of family interaction was foreign – except maybe on TV. Although I never met her, Lee’s grandmother was an incredibly talented woman. Actually Lee is too – more genetics. What I remember most are the things that Lee’s grandmother carved from wood. There was a beautiful intricately carved lidded box, like a jewelry or dresser box and a large wall carving of an American eagle. There were other things too – not only that her Grandmother made, but things that belonged to her that seemed to make an impression on me. There was a necklace with dark reddish-brown faceted beads – I can’t remember if it was garnet or amber, and a celluloid Japanese themed diorama in a clam shell. I loved the shell piece and it comes back again much later in life to take on a prominent role (more about that at another time). Getting back to Lee’s grandmother and the wood carvings… she made a wonderful wooden village that would be set up at Christmas. I can’t remember how many buildings it had, but there were a lot! All different, carved and painted like ornate chalets and other buildings. There was a clock tower in the town center along with people and animals and trees. There was a frozen pond and even a magnificent copy of Independence Hall. Among the many pieces that made up this village were a few little bisque babies in snow suits.
I fell in love with them.
I had never seen anything like them before – tumbling and sliding snow-covered figures. Lee told me they were snow babies. These early versions were the inspiration for the still popular line of Snow Babies made by Dept. 56, which were introduced in the late 1980’s. Initially I was a bit snobbish about the newer ones but it wasn’t long before I came to appreciate them as well made tributes to the originals.
I must have been talking about snow babies a lot at home since several months later, a letter came in the mail from my Aunt in Texas. I didn’t really know her, but my Dad must have mentioned all of this in talking with his sister. In the letter were pages from a magazine called Spinning Wheel. It was a publication dedicated to antiques and this particular issue had an article about snow babies. In short, what I learned is that they were made around the turn of the 1900’s in Germany, and they were originally used as cake decorations. Japan introduced a version later in the first quarter of the century. The article showed many of the poses and sizes that they came in – some with sleds or skis, snowballs or companion polar bears or penguins. I was completely captivated by them.
Naturally, I wished I could have one, but where in the world would I ever find one.
These are Dept. 56 mini pewter snow babies
Well, as it turned out there were several other pages of the Spinning Wheel magazine included with the article, and in those days all of the magazines had line ads in the back where you could write for catalogs or purchase items. There was a very small ad – just a couple of lines from a lady who advertised antique dolls. It mentioned a few varieties of dolls, and in the ad – there it was, a snow baby! You could send an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) to the address she had listed and she would send you a listing of what was for sale. Before the internet, everything took so long, but the anticipation was nice in a way. Now everything is almost instant gratification and collections grow very quickly…believe me, I know. So maybe a week or so after you sent your SASE, your list would arrive. There weren’t any photos, but you could call and make arrangements to purchase the item on the list based on the description. Later on, the dealer starting sending a Polaroid photo of any items you were interested in, or there were dark and grainy photocopied pictures of the items printed on the list. Well, I got my first snow baby and no photo was required to seal this deal! With the help of my Dad, we purchased the little figure sight unseen. Upon arrival, it did not disappoint. I loved the little figure on its belly in a snow-covered suit.
I couldn’t believe that I had a snow baby of my own!
The thing about all of that waiting in those days was, I had time to look over the rest of the dealer’s list. Naturally some of the items were very pricey, so I just looked at the price points. There was a listing that would have been affordable. It was a bisque kewpie type figure with original clothing. We ordered it – again, sight unseen. It’s amazing to me that this was a practice back then. Anyway, she arrived and she was delightful. The dealer included a note with some provenance which stated the doll was used as a wedding favor in 1928. She had a pink silk dress and a wire framed hat covered with pink tulle fabric and a flower accent. Her molded hair was in the style of a 1920’s wave and she had large side glancing eyes. She was just a treasure to me. The silk dress and tulle hat of this little lady eventually just disintegrated. The wire form of her skirt and hat were still present and I did my best to replicate her dress in the early 2000’s.
The snow baby and the list of dolls eventually led me down the path of doll collecting. I think I was about 13 at the time and I’ve been collecting dolls ever since. Antique snow babies proved to be elusive and pricey over the years. Even though I tried to add more to my collection, I was basically unsuccessful. I received two as gifts – the one with the black seal and another version of a baby on its belly.
I found two more at flea markets. One is a cute snowman, and the other is an older girl sliding down a wall. In reality, she is considered a no-snow. Same theme, but no crystalized snow was attached. I didn’t realize this at the time and thought somehow her snow was removed. She also had a broken foot, so she was very affordable. I purchased her and made a foot out of clay and painted it to closely match her existing foot. And since I thought her snow was missing, I crushed an old tea cup to crumbles and glued them on her – yep, I was intense.
So these five figures made up the total of my collection for many years.
Finally, just a few years ago a small group of antique snow babies showed up on an online auction and I was able to get the entire group for less than you might expect to pay for one. The internet wiped out years of searching all in one swoop (it is both a blessing and a curse). They are not all perfect, but they have the great look that I remember from so many years ago.