I arrive at the home of Lisa Coutts – a Melbourne illustrator who’s also an avid collector of vintage snow domes. On entering her apartment I’m blown away by the art adorning her walls – all very personal and unique creations drawn and painted by Lisa herself. Her snow dome collection is taking up a large section of her 1 bedder, and her two devon rex cats seem a little perturbed by my presence. We settle in for a chat about Australia in the 70’s and 80’s, and how Lisa’s snow dome collection is reminiscent of very different times.
Leah:Thanks for meeting with me Lisa. So just how many snow domes do you have?
Lisa: I actually had to count them (laughs). There are 172 Australian locations and 8 Santa themed Christmas ones. I haven’t been so serious about adding to my Santa set!
Leah:How did you start collecting snow domes?
Lisa: I guess my interest started when my grandma brought back a snow dome from Tasmania – it had an internal light and I was obsessed from that moment on! I started with only a small collection of 5 or 6, but I seriously started collecting around 2005 when a chat with a client gave me the idea to look for snow domes on eBay.
My first discovery was a box of 96 snow domes for 99 cents – I bid that box up to $139, I was so desperate! Unfortunately on receiving it, I was disappointed to find only 4 variations – Sydney, Venice, Rome and some awful pink roses. I remember they were fabric roses floating in murky water.
I learnt to ask questions and not be too eager. There’s also a great snow globe enthusiast and collector in the States named Andy Zito – he helped me get started with trading and lots of much needed advice. I’m a total eBay master now and I don’t fall for that urgency thing anymore!
Leah:Yes, Andy Zito sent me your details and that’s how we’ve met – his website is amazing! So what is it you love most about snow domes?
(Lisa starts to show me some of the snow domes representing Australia’s 1970’s icons – including the Melbourne tram, Old Parliament House and the Brisbane City Hall domes pictured below. She’s visibly proud of the City Hall dome, commenting that renowned US collector Andy Zito is keen to get his hands on this one in particular. She handles the domes very delicately, with a reverence that some people may not understand – but any dedicated collector would relate to instantly.)
Lisa: I love their quaint charm and that they’ve trapped a little piece of history. Many of the snow domes I have are from places or attractions that don’t exist anymore, so they’re quite unique.
Another thing I love is that although cheap and mass produced in Hong Kong, their scenes were hand painted – so if you have doubles they can still have slight differences, unlike the newer domes where the scenes are printed onto flat lucite panels and all exactly the same. Sometimes the painting is so slap dash it’s hard to tell what the “thing” inside is. I can imagine the poor workers painting thousands of these things back in the day. I bet they had no idea someone would appreciate their labour so many years on!
Also, many of our tourist attractions are now bypassed by freeways, so people don’t stop off to see them anymore. Overall, I see all my snow domes as quite retro and kitsch – there’s an honesty about them. You don’t see this kind of thing anymore and they evoke a feeling of more innocent times.
Leah:So what memorable responses have you had to your collection over the years?
(At this point, Lisa pulls out a diary she’s used over the years to document her collection, domes she missed out on buying through eBay and general musings about her snow dome obsession. I get the impression she hasn’t looked at this diary for some years, and thumbing through it is bringing back some very personal memories. Her musings are really artistic and interesting – I would have loved to spend an afternoon just reading that diary myself!)
Lisa: I used to have all my domes on display when I had a bigger home (see main blog post image at the top of this page), and it was always fun to see people’s reactions. Other than that I haven’t actively showed them off.
I do have this diary from pre-blogging times – I started it in 2005 at the same time I started seriously collecting. It includes a history of my collecting – stuff like print outs of eBay bids and general musings about my growing collection. I even printed out eBay pages for snow globes I didn’t get because of exorbitant prices.
The most expensive one I missed out on was a “Hutt River Province Principality – Seceded 1970”. Seceded means you’ve separated from the country and have your own country or kingdom. It ended up going for $344!
I emailed the “King” of Hutt River himself and he was blown away by the blast from the past – he was very sorry he no longer had any of those snow domes for me. He wished he had some more based on that value, although I suspect it wouldn’t be worth that much if there were more of them.
Leah:Which snow dome is your favourite and why?
Lisa: I don’t have a single favourite, but overall I love my range of “Big” snow domes – I don’t mean size, but the tourist attractions called “The Big Banana” or whatever – we have lots of those in Australia’s history and my range includes:
Big Oyster – now a car yard in Queensland
Big Merino – NSW
Big Banana – Coffs Harbour NSW border with QLD
Big Pineapple – QLD
Big Rockinghorse – SA
Big trout – Snowy mountains NSW
Big humpty dumpty – Mildura VIC
The Big Oyster
Parliament House, Canberra
“The Big” series
Retro Calendar Domes
City Hall Brisbane
Hutt River Province
Leah:What do you think it is that makes snow domes so enduring?
Lisa: I think they have a magical quality about them – no one can resist picking them up and shaking them and people love to connect their own visit to these places with the snow dome itself. They’re very nostalgic and people remember seeing them on their travels. They certainly can evoke childhood memories too.
Leah:Is there any specific design or scene you’ve always wanted but never been able to find?
Lisa: I really, really wanted that Hutt River globe, and also the Big Orange is my other Holy Grail – I haven’t been able to get one of those either. I missed a couple on eBay over the years – I have people keeping an eye out for me! I recall someone online saying to me “Aaah the Big Orange – it is an elusive one”. (laughs).
I would happily get my hands on more of the site specific snow domes for tourist attractions (rather than just “Melbourne” or Sydney” domes.)
I really prefer focusing on the Australian domes, although there are some great overseas ones like the ones on Andy Zito’s site. Some of the US road trip domes are amazing.
Leah:Lisa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Tell me a little about yourself and your illustration work.
Lisa: I studied graphic design, and I’ve been an illustrator for 20 years. I specialise in children’s work – kids books and wall paintings. Some of my work is at South Yarra Arthouse and it’s also displayed at my blog.
I really loved the chance to see Lisa’s collection, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the walk down memory lane too! If you’re a snow dome collector, I’d love for you to share your thoughts and images in the comments section below!