My Search for The First Snowman; 6 yrs & $40K Later
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.
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.
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.
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.
A portion of my 1000+ snowman collection is on display in the elegant
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).
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.
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.
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