Bob Eckstein

Bob Eckstein
Location
New York City, New York,
Birthday
February 27
Title
Publisher of Today's Snowman.com
Bio
Snowman expert, author of The History of the Snowman and cartoonist for the New Yorker, Reader's Digest, Wall Street Journal and others. Twitter; snowmanexpert

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DECEMBER 2, 2008 11:37PM

My Search for The First Snowman

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My Search for The First Snowman; 6 yrs & $40K Later

 

Snowman story
Marginal illustration from Book of Hours, ca. 1380.
Used with permission from Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague.

Who made the first snowman? Who first came up with the idea of placing one snowball atop another and sticking a carrot in the top sphere? This was my quest for over 6 years. It would deplete my bank account, test my marriage and get me in with a lot of cool celebrities.

I was at a career crossroads of sorts when I decided to tackle this project. Weary and jaded from working as a writer and illustrator in the shrinking magazine field for over 15 years, my flashier assignments were well behind me. I was looking for something that would provide purpose. Something to wrap my brain around. I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan although the idea of solving a crime didn’t interest me. No, not just any mystery but one of life’s great mysteries, along the lines of who made the first sandwich…or who told the first joke. My subject needed to be famous yet unknown. Beloved but mysterious. Then I thought of Tim Burton’s Batman. It intrigued me how he took such a white-bread character (the campy Adam West version) and cast, of all people, Michael Keaton, to make a very dark, serious character study. Burton had successfully turned the icon on its head. Could I do that with the snowman? So began my wild goose chase.

I started in the more obvious places, places I would consider the archaeological digs of kitsch snowmen long discarded; the flea markets and ebay. But as I suspected, these artifacts were of the modern snowman, the results of folk-art gone bad and while it resulted in a pretty cool (and enormous) snowman collection, I had no real clues to the snowman’s past. Books on winter pastimes were vague on the subject and wrongly concluded when snowman-making become popular. Instead I enlisted the help of leading historians from around the world who seemed genuinely excited take a break from whatever it was they were working on to be invited on my own personal Holy Grail. Now I was taking it up a notch, scouring museums and libraries in the oldest cities, examining their public and private art collections, gaining access to archived journals (which meant putting on the payroll Columbia history students who knew Dutch and Old English to translate leads in old diaries and chronicles I suspected mentioned snowmen or contained snowman-like activities.).

Two things became clear early on; 1) This could not have been accomplished sooner. It took the maturation of the internet. Using Jstor, the world’s journal database, I had access to absurd university papers from nearly every institute. Plus, my inbox was a who’s who of superstar historians and professors. I had the famous archaeologist, Dr. Nigel Spivey, art theorist Matt Glatton, the distinguished Arctic studies Prof. Dale Guthrie, and many others…all working on Project Snowman. I was in constant contact with a dream team of experts who were text messaging me clues from their areas of expertise from all cold corners of the world as I pieced together the birth of the snowman puzzle. 2) I realized I really stepped into it. I found a subject no one had thoroughly researched before, chock-full of secrets no one had yet published. It was like I found a winning lottery ticket.

Snowman sculpture
An example of a “Renaissance Snowman,” a snowman as fine art,
being representational and often conceptual.

Speed ahead 4 years. Like that pivotal moment in the movie Castaway when we see these words appear on the screen and cut back to see a buff Tom Hanks now a seasoned desert island virtuoso, I too was now a different person. Possibly even more snowman shaped. But definitely a gentleman scholar and confidant I have become the leading authority on the subject of the snowman. I had divided my findings into logical, sequential chapters. Initially, my editors fought my plan to have the book going back in time (history books are always in chorological order) but I wanted my book to unfold as a mystery with the solution appearing at the end. The chapter titles were to include The White Trash Years, The Hollywood Years: “There’s No Business Like Snow Business,” The Dean Martin Years: Drunken Debauchery and Other Misgivings, The Era of Snowman Deconstructionism, Belgian Expressionism and Early Classism in Snow Sculpture. These were punctuated by benchmarks for this frozen Forrest Gump such as The Revolution of 1870, The Snow Angel of 1856, The Massacre of 1690 and The Two Ball Theory. But of course all of this culminates to solving the true mystery, The First Snowman.

Prior to turning in my manuscript I would have to meet face-to-face with the renown Professor Herman Pleij. I needed his blessing before I went to press with my shocking tale as to the first documented snowman, a story that would upset many and put me immediately under attack. My journey to the University of Amsterdam would take up what was left of the winter and began by flying to Belgium and then a trolley to the Brussels city museum, where old maps charted the politically charged and pornographic snowmen made throughout the town in The Miracle of 1511. This I knew through Professor Pleij in his amazing but unknown Dutch book, De sneeuwpoppen van 1511. Detours included a visit to Arras, France, the site of a spectacular winter festival in 1434. Visiting this town I find no evidence that the town symbol was once the rat. Bruges was another stop. I went to towns in England and Germany. Art museums never brought me over to their snowmen (or schneemann) but sometimes, just sometimes, I was able to point out how they were wrong and find snowmen right under their noses.

Snowman75 copy
A rare photo ca. 1915 of WWI German soldiers with their leader.

Weeks later, an express train took me to The Royal Library at The Hague, where I met with experts to discuss the particulars of the first printed snowman which was in their possession in that historic, illuminated manuscript. The Royal Library’s collection of images of all kinds is the world’s largest at 8 million+. Here I would stay until I finished combing the catalog and double-checking the results of the art experts who helped me the past four years looking for the earliest depictions of snowmen (or snowballs…or snowball fights—where there’s smoke…). I focused on the approximately 15,000 woodcuts, drawings, etchings, and paintings created before 1750 that were categorized as winterscapes, examining each suspicious mound of snow with a magnifying glass, hoping to spot anything that resembled a snowman. When I finished that arduous task a week later, I hitched a ride to Amsterdam from an old friend who also acted as my Dutch translator. Always looking for any snowman references, we spotted a very old mural of Willem Barentz on the outskirts of the city. I had heard about this 200-yr old wall portrait and made a point of making a detour down the street named after the important explorer. Barentz died trying to find the Northeast Passage to China and engravings in the sixteenth century atlas Petits Voyages by the famous de Bry brothers depicted snowmen in the distance. Did Barentz discover the first snowmen in Spitsbergen or was this artistic license? (That riddle was resolved a year ago and no longer part of the bigger picture.) Once inside the city, I made my way to the university by foot. Our route took us past some of the city’s most popular tourist attractions: a quick peek was all that was needed in “The World’s Smallest Art Gallery” (the size of a closet)…a brisk walk through the red light district and past its famed Banana Bar flanked by bikers offering coupons…and a hurried tour in Rembrandt’s house, where the great painter went bankrupt, only a snowball’s throw from the center of the city.
 
  BARENTZ web
Photo of the wall mural of Willem Barentz I took from behind the wheel of my rental car.

OS engraving
De Bry brothers engraving from the atlas Petits Voyages. Ca. 1603.
Note the yellow circle.

closeup
Close-up.

Finally, I arrived for my long awaited appointment with Prof. Pleij or as his code name in the mission, The Big P. As the leading authority in medieval cultural studies and, more importantly, snowmen in the Middle Ages, our lengthy conversation regarding my fieldwork and my conclusions of the illustration appearing in the Bible as being an anti-Semitic illustration was crucial. I was upset that here is where it ended and I needed reassurance that this was indeed the snowman’s beginning. But we had both been consulting with Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff, the most knowledgeable person alive regarding religious symbolism in Northern European art of the Middle Ages and cross referencing with artwork telling the story of the Crucifixion, and we, after serious deliberation, concluded that I was, unfortunately, correct.

My meeting with the distinguished professor ended with him congratulating me for what he considered a sufficient feat and gave me his blessing. My Dutch friend documented the moment and our good-bye handshake with a digital camera and then looking at his coupon asked if I remembered where we passed the Banana Bar.

ξ
 
 
I posted this to coincide with a series of presentations I’m currently giving on the history of the snowman. The colorful show includes never-before-seen photographs and rare artwork followed by a pressure-filled Q & A and book signing.

A portion of my 1000+ snowman collection is on display in the elegant
Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, PA until Feb 2009.

Dec. 4th Thurs 7pm Upper West Side, NYC; Morningside Books, Broadway & 114th St.

Dec. 7th Sun 1pm Schenectady, NY Schenectady County Public Library 99 Clinton St., Schenectady, NY

Dec. 7th Sun 2pm Schenectady, NY (just book signing & beverages) @ Open Door Bookstore 128 Jay St. Schenectady

Dec. 7th Sun 4pm Book Signing @ Albany Book House Stuyvesant Plaza 1475 Western Ave Albany, NY

Dec. 9th, Tues 7 pm Toadstool Bookstore @ The Colony Mill Marketplace Keene, New Hampshire

Dec. 12th, Fri 7 pm Brooks Memorial Library 224 Main Street Brattleboro, Vermont (half proceeds go to the library)

Jan. 8th, Thurs 6 pm Snowman Contest @ Scranton Winter Festival @ The Albright Memorial Library 500 Vine Street Scranton, PA (570-348-3000) followed by Snowman Presentation (half proceeds go to the library). If you can’t make the contest in person, don’t fret! Today’s Snowman www.historyofthesnowman.comruns world-wide monthly snowman contests online. It’s free, fun and there’s prizes (I already have some entries from OSers).

Snowmanstamp
From the late 19th century, trading cards like this predated postcards.
Beautifully illustrated, they were left on shop counters to be taken (and collected).


Of course, this is all part of my effort to promote my new book. This last part is for those interested in the book and/or for those interested in the mechanics of selling your own book.

All modesty and dignity long went out the window when it became clear how difficult it would be to get a book noticed. Not that I didn’t have my chances. I was scheduled to be on
Lettermen until the writer’s strike last year. It looked like that loss would be erased when CBS Sunday Morning asked to follow me around for a feature (no, not a spot but feature!) Charles Osgood spent the day with me in my apartment talking snowmen. I n the end a little thing called the Iraq War bumped me off…week after week, until an early spring closed the deal. There were other close calls for the book…what can you do but keep talking about the book and kissing babies. No one promised writing books was a good business model. One of my (ever changing) editors was asked at a MediaBistro seminar what was the single most important thing to being a successful writer. His reply; “Be famous.” Sad, but true.

poster

My agent and publisher (Simon & Schuster) love the book. They’ve paid to tell me that. They backed it up with bold declarations including this poster for the book, which came in different sizes including this one here which is 8-feet tall. Others championed us. Amazon picked it Best Book of the Season. Smoking Gun called it “brilliant.” A Python called it “funny.” So what’s the problem? Well, there’s my impeccable timing for one thing. I’m hocking a snowman book during an economic meltdown that’s taking place in a global warming. A precarious time for the snowman industry indeed.

We have all waited for change. Change of leadership, change of seasons. What we need to lift our spirits at this dark holiday time is snow. Like The Gates @ Central Park, we could use seeing the city draped with snowflakes. We need a fun, inexpensive treat. We need the sky to open up and drop free art supplies on our doorsteps. No form of art is more public yet less judgmental than snowman-making. That’s why it’s the purest art form, fulfilling two primal instincts man has always held; the need to depict himself (whether in cave art, sculpture, etc.) and the urge to place one thing on top of another. Never before, we need to make snowmen.

snowman_cover

Thank you to those helping me by buying my book, The History of the Snowman; From the Ice Age to the Flea Market. To buy online, click on the book above. Signed copies are available at Anthology in Scranton, PA and Barnes & Noble in Union Square, NYC

 

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Wow, Bob. What an exposition on your book-writing adventure. You should get an honorary Ph.D. from a prestigious university (no kidding) for your addition of this body of knowledge to the world. I haven't read the book yet; I thought it was rather more humorous than scholarly. I shall purchase the book, and I suspect from your tale above, I'll enjoy it a lot.
Bob,
you have to get this out to Kirkus or the ALA (American Library Association) - if the librarians approve, it gets in all the libraries (think about how many copies that is!) In fact, I think I'll request my library go buy it...
Kudos, Bob. My wife is a Frosty the Snowman nut. I will buy your book for her for Christmas.

Good luck!
Bob, what an amazing story and adventure you've been on. You got a kick ass publisher you know that. And I know times may be bleak, but I read recently that book sales are actually going up. And tis the perfect season, what with Christmas and all and books are affordable gifts. Count me in as someone who will be ordering your book. It will be my pleasure and honor.
I'm buying the book! Fantastic! The research alone is well worth the cash. What a journey! I must say, your story alone on finding all this out is a true inspiration! :)
Gee, thanks so much. I mean I appreciate any support and it's a tremendous boast to my spirits and has me walking on cloud nine this morning reading the comments. THANKS! As you can imagine, they were some naysayers who had told me how stupid I was not to make this a children's book. At least one agent and one publisher said I get what I deserve for not listening to them and overhauling the book for children. I got a couple of historians upset I injected humor in the book.

But I left the sex and violence in. One problem we (the publisher and I) encounter is that the book is shelved in store's children's sections.

I made one compromise of taking out 10,000 words from the original 45,000 word manuscript on advisement of my editor to keep the book user-friendly; "...if it becomes too long readers are going to question whether or not they want to invest that much time learning a subject which they're not sure they are even going to like." And the last thing I wanted to do is make history work. I had hoped to show how much fun history could be.
I thought I had friends with unusual historical obssessions. But you, my dear, take the proverbial cake (guard it well, beacause I am sure Freaky will try to steal it from you...)

Why oh why couldn't you be touring DC way? Sigh. I will just have to settle for buying a few copies of the book to give as gifts.
What an amazing project for a book. Bob, you have given us all great joy with all your illustrations and cartoons. Now you have given us a wonderful way to retrace history. Best of luck with this book
I bought my copy before it went platinum! You have significant other and I hooked on snowmen now, which is a bit awkward as we live in Mississippi. We actually had to resist the urge to buy snowmen tchochkes while out shopping this past weekend. (In our defense, we were considering buying them to send to you, but figured you might already have a house full!)

Love the book!
Wait a minute, fella - you're NOT FAMOUS?????

Congrats on the book, Bob. I thoroughly enjoyed the tale of its birth.

Thumbed, of course, with a mitten-covered hand.
Book purchased, post skimmed for delayed gratification (I want to read it in hand). I love snow; I love snowmen. You're awesome.

BTW, when we went to Durango this past weekend, the snow was too powdery to make a dude or dudette. Any secrets for super dry powder and snowman building? We were 10,000 feet up and had no water.
No way should this have been a children's book. We've sold the book during both Christmas seasons and always have it in stock - year round.
Bob, this is an exceptional piece. i can't wait to get the copy.
We had a wet snow here last week and there were many snowmen around. Great work!!
First, to Susan in Mississippi - I also live in a place with no snow, so I have to live vicariously through other folks' snow-people. And I admit to thinking of Bob whilst looking over Snowman themed hand-crafted hoo-hahs last week. That said, they were so cute, he will never see them, except as a digital photograph!

Second, to Bob - Who came up with the super graphic on the book cover. The "Ascent of Snowman," sort of. I love it.

Your publisher needs to get the book out on the holidat tables now (in the bookstores) and get it in front of lots of eyes. Who have money! Surely your Dewey decimal number or LOC number does not indicate a children's book.

Are you yourself selling autographed copies perchance?
Ha! What a wildly funny read. And truth be told, interesting, too. Thanks for sharing and promoting!

Fresh off his last Da Vinci Code installment, we’ll have to get Ron Howard to direct the feature, but who will play Bob Eckstein?

And your publisher should schedule visits to the west coast, too. We could use the coolness of snowmen in L.A.
What a quest!

I particularly like the illuminated snowman. But - I wonder, were there neolithic snowmen? Perhaps the subject of cave art? Likely there was no lack of snow...........
I plan to write to some of you personally (I'm just returning home) but in meanwhile wanted to say thanks.

A couple of people asked for a signed copy. I suggest $20 for the book & shipping but I'm willing to work with what ever you can afford. I would be sending you a book I bought from my publisher (at a discount I enjoy) but I pay more than Amazon on shipping. Plus Amazon can get you the book fast. So I don't recommend it but if you don't like Amazon and it means you won't otherwise read the book, let me know. And if you get two or three books anywhere let me know (so I can send you a thank you gift). If you buy alot of them let me know, and I will personally build in your front yard a snowman for your kids as thanks.
I actually did the cover. It may be fun and interesting for those here working on books to do a post about the book's cover. There were 35 and picking one lead to the biggest arguments surrounding the book. This was NOT my first choice.

And yes, the book has a number that it shouldn't be in childrens' and I gave wrong impression that every store is doing that. Just some. Enough to drive me batty.

As far as a Da Vinci Code like movie, I just saw it and to be honest I couldn't follow it. I liked it but didn't understand some of it. There are a couple of film studios awaiting a snowman script from me (for a TV special) but I told them they'd see something when I came up with something funny. I haven't yet. (but I see myself played by Gilbert Gottfried)
brilliant on all levels; at least two men in my family are getting your book for X-mas....Thanks!
Fascinating. Good luck on your book tour! May the best seller muse be with you. Paw up.
Nononononooooo! You were less than three blocks from where I live (Upper West Side of NYC), and I missed you're presentation! Augh.

I definitely would have come, this sounds really really interesting. I'm sorry I missed it! Maybe you'll come by again (= Congratulations on the book and the culmination of your research! I hope everything goes well for you.
"Coolest Book Ever." *snort* And I totally love the cover art!!!

And AWWW. I missed your NYC dates. I was busy singing.
Oh my god, Bob. I cannot wait to read your book. I knew you were like a big deal before I started talking to you, but I had no idea what the snowman thing was really about. To actually find the origins to be so dark... Just freaking wow.
You may bump Chelsea on the list, man. I'm buying it on my lunch hour.