A history of Americans and their snowmen.
By Gene Tempest
“The census bureau may not record it, but the population of Fort Worth and Dallas jumped considerably today,” the newsman told the television audience at home.
On Thursday, February 25, 1960, schools were closed in Tarrant County, Texas. A norther had brought two inches of snow to the cities of Fort Worth and Dallas. It was the first proper snow of the year, and now there were snowmen all across North Texas.
That afternoon, a crew for WABP-TV, a local NBC affiliate, pulled into the Tarrant County Children’s Home, where 14-year-old Ellen Riggs and 15 other girls had built someone out of snow.
Yes, the snowman has a history. We can glimpse it by peering off the edges of the official record, into the places where there seems to be no news at all; into the quiet dispatches from the mundane and the everyday and the should-have-been-forgotten. Into the little snows.
Our snowmen have changed since the first American records in 1690. The snowman’s purpose has changed. His — and her — shapes have changed. One snowball, three snowballs, or two? The American snowman has become an icon, a type, a school. There is now a right way, and a wrong way, to build a snowman. There is a tutorial on the internet. (Actually, there are hundreds.) No, not every one is a real, original, heirloom, organic, correct snowman. You can be wrong. “There’s actually some nuance to building a snowman and some legit ways of making it better,” a blogger at Momtastic writes. Perhaps it would be safer to buy a snowman kit for $8.99 on Amazon. If you don’t follow the blueprint, beware: there is that dangerous whiff of the obscene, of the eccentric, of the counter-cultural. Though this, we’ll see, wasn’t always so.
Fashions change. Parallel to the story of the snowman is a secret history of American style. A front-yard display of daddy’s closet castoffs — and all our forefathers’ castoffs — an embarrassing record that we hadn’t realized had been carefully kept of all the shabby clothes relegated to kids’ play, to dress-up, to snowmen.
Is there a snowman in America today who could sport a stovepipe hat? Where would you even find such a topper? So why do we still reach for a long-dead piece of headwear to accessorize the present?
You’re never not in conversation with the past. Before rolling that first snowball — before we begin — we’ve been here already. Snowmen don’t last through spring, but, then again, the snowman outlives us all.
Whose snowman are you building out there, really?
In Tarrant County, Texas, Riggs’ snow creature had a holster, a toy gun (to keep the boys at bay), and a chevelure. “No snow-girl could match this one — for complexion, costume and hair,” said the WABP-TV reporter. Riggs had cut off her ponytail to give locks to the snow-person. Riggs said that she herself had wanted short hair anyway. At the Tarrant County Children’s Home stood a modern snow-woman. A “cold tip with hot lips, a chick who will melt in your arms,” the girls chanted.
“Snow-people spring up all over the city today,” the newsman reported. “Beatnik snowmen, abominable snowmen, and just plain old carrot-nosed snowmen.” The year was 1960! So, in some ways, of course: beatnik fellas and hot frozen gals with real hair and fake guns. A reflection of the age — our demons and dreams in snow.
Texas small town papers — even, or perhaps especially, in towns that rarely saw snow — had a tradition of dispatching photographers to shoot the first local snowman. The images then ran in the next day’s paper. Imagine: young humans in tiny southern towns bursting into wood-floored newsrooms to lay their small claim to immortality.
In Grand Prairie, between Fort Worth and Dallas, the honors went to 422 Church Street, where Karl Pittman and his two sons, Danny and Charles, built someone in an hour and a half. They had begun their work before the snow even stopped. The next day, an over-exposed image — the snowman almost entirely bleached out, like the face of a victim in a Weegee crime scene photograph — ran on page one of the Daily News-Texan under the headline “FIRST SNOWMAN.”
Among the people, too, there was a mad rush to document. “All of the drug stores in town sold out of Kodak film,” a columnist for the weekly Mainland Times reported from La Marque, south of Houston. “They could have sold twice as many if they had the stock.” The Mainland Times decided to run a contest to make nice use of this popular archive — “$5 to the person bringing in the best snow man picture.” Nancy Mauney and Cheryl Gagne won the prize. The pair had built an eight-foot snowman with a black hat and scarf, and had called it Abe Lincoln.
There is an old American tradition of politicians made of snow.
I talked to cartoonist Bob Eckstein about this — as well as about snowmen raised not just in effigy and in-honor-of, but also about snowmen with politics, about the snowmen of the people.
Eckstein is a cartoonist for The New Yorker and MAD Magazine, and perhaps the world’s foremost chronicler of the snowman. In 2007, he published The History of the Snowman.
He argues that early snowmen, especially in Europe, were much more political than their contemporary American cousins. “In the Middle Ages, snowman-making was a way for people to say something against their church, or maybe their local politician,” he told me. “Once in a while [today] you see a snowman used for protest, with a sign, go viral.”
Eckstein says: “The snowman has always been a reflection of what’s happening in our society.”
The small town of Bethel, Maine, on the northern edge of the White Mountains, has twice built the biggest snowman in the world. Both snowmen were named for local politicians. The first, a 113-foot-7-inch, eight-million-pound gargantuan built in 1999, was named after then-Governor Angus King. “Of course he was super, super flattered,” says Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce who oversaw both historic campaigns. The second record-breaking snowman, a snow-womaneight and a half feet taller and five million pounds heavier than Angus, was completed in 2008 and named for Maine’s then-Senator Olympia Snowe. (Since the second snowman, King has succeeded Snowe in the U.S. Senate.)
Construction on Angus, Bethel’s first Tallest Snowman in the World, an official title certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, began in January 1999, and lasted a month. It took five times that long for Angus to melt.
When Zinchuk and the Bethel Chamber of Commerce first started talking about building the Tallest Snowman in the World, the record was held by the Yamagata Prefecture on the north end of the main Japanese island of Honshu. The Japanese snowman, built in 1995, stood 96 feet and 7 inches tall, yet in photographs appeared somewhat squat. It looked horizontal, its broad base of support stretching out across the snow. With arms and legs hollowed out of a wide body — a construction method closer to the carving out of Mount Rushmore’s faces than to the erection of a skyscraper — it was topped with a large spherical head, complete with eyes, brown nose and red mouth.
It didn’t look much like the Maine snowmen. The dominant impression of Angus and Olympia is of verticality. Up, up, up! Higher! They — and Angus in particular — stood like enormous, rigid, ribbed snow sausages, or vast snow totem poles, towering over the small northeastern town.
Snowmen have no country.
They’re from everywhere, really. Eckstein fervently believes that cavemen made snow sculptures. Eckstein identifies the first record of a European snowman as a small drawing in the margins of a manuscript at the Hague Royal Library, dated 1380.
North Asia, too, has old and rich snowman-building cultures. In Japan, Eckstein says, snowmen are built for good luck. Some are hollowed out in body, a candle placed inside to glow. Since 1950, the annual snow festival in the city of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido and at the same latitude as Vladivostok, has showcased ice sculptures, snow statues and snowmen. Festival posters dating to 1950 clearly show that in the Japanese visual tradition — if not also in life — the snowman is made of two vertically stacked balls of snow.
Eckstein tracks the first reference to a North American snowman to a winter massacre at Fort Schenectady in the English colony of New York, in 1690.
“The gates to the fort were left open,” Eckstein said, “and the two guards, instead of staying on post, . . . went inside the fort to a pub to have a drink. [They] left it unmanned, assuming, wrongly, that no one would be traveling in such severe blizzard conditions. Different sources say that there were two snowmen left in their place instead.” The attack killed 60 people. Perhaps the snowmen watched.
The early American snowman was a portent of something dark. It was, in the seventeenth century colonies, no child’s play.
How do you build a snowman that is only 30 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty?
Bethel, Maine, unlike Tarrant County, Texas, is famous for its snow, that particular part of the state receiving, on average, 14 feet a year. The hamlet is in prime New England ski country. The village cuts and maintains hundreds of miles of snowmobiling tracks, and dozens of miles of cross-country ski trails. The Chamber of Commerce produces videos promoting Bethel as a winter wedding destination. (Ride a ski lift in your gown!)
But the bulk of the snow that built the two Tallest Snowmen in the World was actually manufactured at the Sunday River ski resort (“the most dependable snow in New England”), six miles north of Bethel.
In 1999, Sunday River was a cutting-edge snow factory, and remains so today. Its snowmakers are the New England big boys. In 2016, the crew won the “I Am A Snowmaker” contest run by Ski Area Management magazine. During the 2015–2016 season, a terrible year for natural snow in the northeast, the resort was making so much snow that the Doppler radar picked up the mountain as its own weather system. “All season, every season,” boasts their website, “regardless of Mother Nature’s whims.”
It took a total of four weeks for the Sunday River snowmakers to produce the 21 million pounds of snow that built Angus and Olympia.
When that product needed to be moved south to the build site in Bethel, the governor gave Chamber Director Zinchuk permission to mobilize the National Guard. An enormous crane was also waiting to receive the snow at the construction site. “We could not have done it had it not been for the crane,” Zinchuk says. A contracting company in South Paris, Maine, thirty minutes south of Bethel, had donated the heavy equipment, as well as a crane operator’s time. The crane worked eight hours a day for three weeks to build the first record-breaking snowman in 1999.
To finish Angus, two 25-foot fir trees were added as arms. “They were the very first thing that kind of blew off,” Zinchuk says. The snowman’s eyes were four-foot fir wreaths. Five car tires roped together and embedded in Angus’ face made a mouth, while bigger ‘skidder’ truck tires were stuck on the body as buttons. Middle-school math students made a 20-foot-long fleece hat, and Angus also wore a 120-foot purple, yellow, red and blue scarf.
In 2008, when Bethelians planned to build a bigger snowman (“since the economy was starting to really tank, and people were feeling a little . . . depressed and under the weather,” Zinchuk recalled, “we said, ‘What the heck, let’s do it again’”) they decided to make it a her.
“How do you make a big pile of snow look like a woman?” Zinchuk asks.
It’s an important question.
In Bethel’s final construction, most of the gendering was done through accessories. “We painted tires for the mouth red so she had red lips, and she had a pink scarf and a pink hat, and we used skis as her eyelashes.” Physically, despite being slightly taller than the snowman, like the girls at dances in middle school, the main difference is at the snowwoman’s base, or, as Zinchuk terms that particular piece of anatomy, “the hips.”
“She had slightly larger hips, so she wasn’t quite so narrow.”
Olympia’s frame is wider (125 feet in diameter to Angus’ 80), although the effect is perhaps only dubiously feminine, more avalanche-ish than chromosomal. “The world’s tallest snowman is no man,” the Associated Press reported in 2008. But were either of these embodiments of the World’s Tallest Snowmen actually the genuine article?
“It doesn’t look like a traditional snowman,” Dwayne Cantrell comments on Guinness’ Facebook page. Olympia — and Angus, too, for that matter — may be missing that defining thing that makes a snowman a snowman. According to Cantrell that vital, necessary magic je ne sais quoi is “three separate balls of snow.”
If you’ve built a figure out of snow in the United States in the last 67 years, your snowman — and likely your ideas about what is and what makes one “traditional” — comes originally, at least in part, from a Columbia Records recording studio, where Gene Autry — radio, movie, and television’s quintessential singing cowboy — and the Cass County Boys first recorded “Frosty the Snow Man,” a short holiday tune written by music industry veterans Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins.
Frosty wasn’t created out of thin air, Eckstein points out. In November 1944, Snowy the Traveling Snow Man, a children’s book written by Ruth Burman and illustrated by Elsa Garratt, featured a plot similar to Frosty’s (magical snowman who will return some day), and certain passages suggest that Snowy travels along in a “bumpity-bump” way similar to Frosty’s “thumpety-thump thump” motion. Visually, Garratt’s Snowy is rendered with red ear muffs, a dandy’s hat and gloves, and a red and yellow scarf. Snowy’s eyes are also made of coal, the pipe is yellow, corn-cob like; the nose is a carrot — a major difference.
Frosty’s physical details, as written by Nelson and Rollins in 1950, are relatively sparse. We hear that: “Frosty the Snow Man / Was a jolly happy soul / With a corncob pipe and a button nose / And two eyes made out of coal.”
The magic that brings Frosty to life in the song is in that “old silk hat,” and by the sixth verse the snowman has also been accessorized “with a broomstick in his hand” that he carries down through “the village.”
Much more detailed images of Frosty, however, proliferated at once. When the record was released in 1950 — initially selling 2 million copies — the cover art shows a rounded three-snowball figure with black hat, red mittens, scarf and boots. The eyes, corncob pipe, etc. are all present, though the broomstick is not.
On the cover of the sheet music published at the same time, Frosty is much taller, and made from three distinct, less stylized, balls of snow. Frosty’s pipe is balanced at the corner of his open and smiling mouth. This snowman iteration is used almost exactly, in color, by illustrator Corrine Malvern in the 1950 book, Frosty the Snow Man, published by Little Golden Books (“adapted from the song of the same name”). Malvern’s Frosty has a blue scarf, and his button nose is red, giving a slightly porcine impression.
Frosty moved almost immediately to the screen. In 1950, United Productions of America (UPA) and Castle Films produced a three-minute “song cartoonette.” Broadcast in 1954 on WGN-TV in Chicago, though the title was changed from “snow man” to “snowman,” Frosty remains a happy, jittery, three-ball snowman in black and white.
A 30-minute holiday color cartoon special arrived in 1969, and has been followed by many sequels. The 1969 Frosty incarnation is often credited with establishing our mental picture of a “proper” snowman. But that Frosty is in fact a two-snowball figure, a diminution of the norm.
Omnipresent as he was and has continued to be, neither 1950 Frosty nor 1969 Frosty explains everything. When we look closely, the Frosties don’t exactly provide a manual for building a real world snowman. They offer only shifting definitions. They change, a little, with the times. And then there is the main sticking point: the nose. There, despite all the bestselling songs and books and cartoons, the carrot has triumphed over the button.
In Bethel, Maine, decades later, the two Tallest Snowmen in the World each sported a six-foot chicken-wire-and-orange-muslin faux carrot nose manufactured by elementary school children.
The Guinness Book of World Records, which certified both Angus and Olympia, maintains that the Bethel snow-people look like, and indeed categorically, are snowmen.
London-based Guinness, which runs the world’s most popular and longest-running superlative records base (including such records as: Largest Hiking/Work Boot, Most Canned Drinks Opened by a Parrot in one Minute, Most Liked Image on Instagram) and publishes a consistently best-selling catalogue of these feats, has not only since 1955 chronicled many of man’s and woman’s and beast’s Best Ofs — it has also defined them.
Guinness World Records is perhaps the closest governing body we have to a snowman’s kennel club. For snowmen today, Guinness sets the standards. It does so in its two snowman categories — Tallest Snowman and Most Snowmen Built in an Hour. In these two categories — and in the requirements written for them — Guinness is in effect the only global institution poised to formally decide what is, or isn’t, a snowman.
To get the specifics, I spoke with Kaitlin Holl, a young Records Manager for Guinness. She is one of three North American Records Managers (her beat is the East Coast and Canada). She and her peers process all North American applications, and in coordination with Guinness headquarters in London, they establish and write the record category guidelines.
To qualify for the tallest snowman record — and to qualify as a snowman at all, in Guinness’ view — the snowman must be fully made of snow, without interior structure or exterior scaffolding. The snowman must also present a humanoid appearance, with distinct head and body. “Some of this is at the discretion of the records manager,” Holl said, “but it has to clearly look like a snowman.”
The discretion of the records manager idea was initially a bit unsettling, because this steps firmly outside of science and precision, and into the definitional grey-zone of I-know-it-when-I-see-it. But then again, the judges at the Westminster Dog Show know what they are looking for, and there is an art to that, too.
A snowman’s identity is more tightly defined in the Most Snowman in an Hour category. The first attempt on this category was successfully made in Salt Lake City in 2011. Utahns built 1,279 snowmen in 60 minutes. Their record was officially shattered four years later by Akabira, Japan, with 2,036 snowmen.
Each one of the 2,036 snowmen had to meet the following requirements: three distinct balls of snow “balanced vertically,” two arms (unspecified material), two eyes (unspecified), and a nose (also unspecified, though in 2011 the Americans had used 1,279 carrots). Each snowman had to be a minimum of three feet tall.
“It has to clearly look like a snowman,” Holl says again. “I would say that’s just kind of creating a baseline to have it look like a snowman. So, you know, if people want to add scarves, or a hat, or whatever, that’s at their discretion. But really to ensure that it actually looks like a snowman, you know you’re going to need to have at least two eyes, nose, and two arms.”
The triumph of the carrot can be found in commercial standardization. The modern marketplace, too, defines and refines how a snowman might, or should, look. Amazon sells a half-dozen snowman-making kits. “This kit contains everything a well-dressed snowman needs,” $12.93. “Just add snow,” $13.95. Most include a black hat, although a few have red toppers, and some kits let you choose a “blue theme” or a “red theme.” Most have eyes that aim for an anachronistic coal-like appearance. The average number of pieces per kit is 13. Every single kit includes a pipe of some sort, and an orange plastic or wooden “carrot.”
Eckstein, who loves snowmen’s rich history and is an artist in his real life, finds these kits incredibly distressing. “The whole point is that this is your chance to be very individual, and to do something that is going to be different. . . . It is one of the only times in one’s lifetime that you may ever make a life-sized sculpture. So, you know, that’s, to me, disheartening that you wouldn’t encourage children instead to do something as individual and creative as they can.”
But I think of these kits as little boxes of secret history, shipped not from Amazon, actually, but from the deep American past.
“Snowmen,” WABP-TV/NBC news script, 25 February 1960, UNT Libraries
Momtastic, “How to Build the Perfect Snowman”
“First Snowman,” Daily News Texan, 25 February 1960
“Citians Plead, ‘Let It Snow,’” The Mainland Times, 2 March 1960
Interview with Bob Eckstein, 1 February 2017; see his recent work here
Interview with Robin Zinchuk, 27 January 2017
Bob Eckstein, The History of the Snowman (2007)
Interview with Kaitlin Holl, 31 January 2017
Originally published on February 9, 2017.