To some snow evokes hazardous road conditions, school closings and schedule changes. But for kids and kids at heart (not to mention uninhibited snow lovers) snow is the raw ingredient for a favorite winter activity: making snowmen (is “snow people” more PC?). Who could not enjoy the thrill and fun of rolling snowballs; placing one on top of the other; inserting a carrot for a nose with assorted materials for mouth, eyes and ears; adorning it with a hat and broom; etc. And finally standing back and feeling pride in their creation?
I’ll bet, however, that most of you have never stopped and wondered about the history of snowmen, or even knew there was a history worth knowing about. Certainly not me, until I recently came upon a positively marvelous and entertaining book, The History of the Snowman, by historian, humorist and cartoonist Bob Eckstein.
Eckstein acknowledges that that it is impossible to know where the idea of making snowmen came from and who did it first. There are some reasons to believe that the earliest cave dwellers built them, but of course they melt and leave no trace - “like trying to find out who made the first joke.” However, after researching artistic depictions in European museums, art galleries and libraries, Eckstein believes the first documentable man of snow was an illustration in a work titled Book of Hours from 1380.
From there, Eckstein’s book reviews the enigmatic past of snowmen from their earliest incarnations through today’s icon of popular culture. He notes that again and again snowmen pop up in rare prints, paintings, early movies and, over the past century, in just about every art form imaginable. Even Michelangelo entertained people of his day with sculptured snow figures.
In the Middle Ages, making snowmen was an early form of political commentary (and pornography). With no internet (ha-ha) people would walk the streets during evenings and view scenes depicting political tableaus (and sexual acts).
Through the ages snowman-making became one of man’s oldest forms of folk-art. During the 14th century, snowmen often resembled specific people and were built by adults trying to convey a message - sort of like a frozen political cartoon. In modern times snowmen are usually built by kids (and kids at heart) with silly grins imitating one version or another of Frosty the Snowman, but without conveying any particular message (political or otherwise) besides showing off one’s creative ability (Eckstein refers to modern times as the “post-Frosty”era).
While snowmen such as these are usually message free, that is frequently far from the case when appearing and/or exploited in photographs and imagery of endless form in a wide array of commercials, greeting cards, decorations, animations and cartoons, including those entering the fray on the science/political debate over global warming (and selling related paraphernalia - e.g., a tote bag and case for your iPad).
Items of additional interest:
* According to Eckstein, people today use many different styles to build their snowmen. In Europe and North America snowmen are usually formed from three snowballs. People in East Asia tend to favor two spheres.
* The “World’s Tallest Snowman” (aka, “Angus, King of the Mountain”) is reported to have been 113 ft. & 7 inches tall (200,000 cubic feet of snow weighing 9 million pounds!).
* Whatever the shape and size of your snowman, the best kind of snow for it is moist snow, when it is close to melting point and fairly compact. Beyond this there’s much else to consider – see How To Build a Snowman. Less seriously:
* The History of the Snowman is currently being made into TV movie – no word yet when it will aired.
* Belated happy Worldday of the Snowman (Jan 18th).