Restoring Snow Globes

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on November 30, 2008
Ken Klotzbach Dick Heibel restores snow globes in his Northfield, Minn., home.

Packages filled with broken dreams and faded memories in the form of shattered and discolored snow globes arrive daily at Dick Heibels home in Northfield, Minn. (pop. 17,147). Heartfelt pleas for help accompany each package.

My son bought this for my wife years ago and she passed away in 2002. My son wanted it back someday as a memory of his mom. Thank you for helping that happen, wrote a customer seeking a snow globe repair.

In his basement workshop, Heibel, 78, opens each package with the enthusiasm of a kid unwrapping a present on Christmas morning. I wait for a unique one, he says. I enjoy taking them apart and figuring out whats wrong.

The most common problem with snow globes is discolored water. Sometimes you cant even see the figures, says Heibel, who has been repairing snow globes for 25 years. The water grows mold, like a swamp.

After sanitizing the globes and figures in bleach, he fills them with a specially formulated liquid to prevent discoloration. Other fixes include reseating dislodged figures and adding new snow or glitter. Silenced music often is restored to the treasured keepsakes of Christmases past, summer vacation souvenirs, and beloved gifts from grandparents and wedding guests.

Prior to repairing snow globes, Heibel restored music boxes and clocks for 25 years. Theyre related, he says. Springs drive gears and gears drive things. In taking them apart and working on them, you learn. There really isnt a manual.

Over the years Heibel has accumulated a vast store of snow globe parts, most of them unavailable on the market today. Heres a Barbie that came in, he says, picking up a broken ceramic doll lying next to a disassembled snow globe. The head fell off when it was dropped.

Heibel repairs more than 200 snow globes a year, most at Christmastime when winter weather can prevent prompt returns. If its too cold, I cant ship them because theyll freeze, he says.

Heibel is rewarded for his meticulous work by the regular thank you notes from grateful customers. How can I ever thank you for the look of pure joy that I was able to see on my 6-year-old granddaughters face on Christmas morning? To say that this is a gift we will always treasure is an understatement, wrote Maureen Johnson of Bath, N.Y.

Sara Constanzo, of Lincoln, R.I., wrote, Thank you so much for repairing my daughters snow globe. It was a sad day when she dropped the globe on the driveway at her baby sitters house. Olivia was in tears for hours, her little heart broken. Now my little girl is happy.

As long as I get these letters, Ill continue, Heibel says.

The Origins of Snow Globes
Initially owned by upper-class Europeans in the early 1800s, snow globes, its thought, evolved from paperweights. The water-filled, leaded-glass globes, mounted on cast-iron or ceramic bases, displayed a whimsical snowfall of bone chips, tiny pieces of ceramic or sawdust. Their popularity grew throughout Europe after the 1889 Paris Exposition featured an Eiffel Tower snow globe souvenir.

Snow globes arrived in the United States in 1920. By the 1940s, they were vehicles of advertising for businesses and unique gifts for children. The globes glass became thinner. Gold glitter or soap chip snow floated in a glycerin and water mixture. The 1950s ushered in plastic globes, bases and snow, making snow globes affordable for everyone. In the 1970s, gift companies transformed snow globes into upscale collectibles, and today, they are complex, technological wonders with lights and music and fans to blow the snow around, so you dont even have to shake them anymore.