The First Photographed Frostie

Last week, a storm brought 10 inches of snow to Western Maryland and turned my mind to snowmen of old.

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A woman builds a snowman whilst a man shovels snow. Courtesy National Museum of Wales.

In all probabilty, humans have sculpted snowmen for millenia. In 2007, Bob Eckstein, the author of The History of the Snowman: From the Ice Age to the Flea Market, told NPR that in writing his book, “I wanted to make it clear that snowman-making actually was a form of folk art. Man was making folk art like this for ages, and…maybe it’s one of man’s oldest forms of art…. [T]he further back you go, you find that people were really fascinated with snowmen.”

Eckstein says that building snowmen was “a very popular activity in the Middle Ages…after a snow came down and dumped all these free-art supplies in front of everyone’s house.” The earliest known representation of a snowman dates to that era, drawn in a 1380 A.D. Book of Hours. A century later, in 1494, Michelangelo was commissioned by Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Gran Maestro of Florence, to practice his art with snow. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, “de’ Medici had him make in his courtyard a statue of snow, which was very beautiful.” Sadly, no one drew it for posterity.

In 1510, a Florentine apothecary, Lucas Landucci confided in his diary that he had seen “a number of the most beautiful snow-lions, as well as many nude figures…made also by good masters.” Another notable snowmen outbreak occurred just a year later, when folk in Brussels built more than 100 of them “in a public art installation known as the Miracle of 1511,” notes Atlas Obscura. “Their snowmen embodied a dissatisfaction with the political climate, not to mention the six weeks of below-freezing weather. The Belgians rendered their anxieties into tangible, life-like models: a defecating demon, a humiliated king, and womenfolk getting buggered six ways to Sunday. Besides your typical sexually graphic and politically riled caricatures, the Belgian snowmen, Eckstein discovered, were often parodies of folklore figures, such as mermaids, unicorns, and village idiots.”

On a sunny day in the winter of 1853/1854, early female photographer Mary Dillman Welby, then aged 37 and sister of the better-known photographer John Llewelyn Dillwyn of Penlle’r-gaer, Swansea, Wales, United Kingdom, captured the collodion glass-plate image seen at the top of this page. Hidden away in the National Museum of Wales, it was rediscovered by an historian researching extreme weather images who recognized it for what it was—the first photographed Frostie. Ω

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In 1913, Dutch Queen Wilhemina and her heir, Princess Juliana, were sculpted from snow by a band of her subjects. Courtesy Nationaal Archief Nederlands.
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Three British children and their snowman in the early years of the 20th Century. Courtesy Beamish Living Museum of the North.
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Children gaze at their snow creation.
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A patriotic snowman on an American Street, probably New York City.
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One half of a stereoview card “Delights of Childhood Days–our pets and the snowman.” Underwood & Underwood, 1902.
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Edwardians in a winter wonderland with their top-hatted snow fellow.
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Sometime in the 1940s, Reggie Babbage, Denys Bryant, and Jean Babbage built a wee snowman at Shute Hill, Breage, Helston, Cornwall.
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British kids caught in mid-creation sometime in the 1940s.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

3 thoughts on “The First Photographed Frostie”

  1. It had never occurred to me that the style of snowmen evolves just like the style of clothing. Pretty cool thing to have learned today. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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