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From Snowballs to Sculptures: Material Culture that Melts

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Inuit on Baffin Island, Canada, building a snow house, ca. 1900-1923. Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, No. 2078-1927-L.D.L.

Making things from snow and ice no doubt dates from very ancient times. But snow leaves no artifacts and so we can only imagine the surprise of the first human pelted by a snowball. In spite of its temporary nature, things made of snow are part of material culture: the traditions related to physical objects and how they are made and used. In the Arctic, understanding the insulating value of snow is important for survival, as was probably true for our ancestors during the last ice age.  Complete snow houses and even large meeting halls were part of the culture of the Inuit people of Greenland and north central Canada. Elsewhere Inuit and other peoples used combinations of materials to build huts or tents with snow for insulation. It is the air trapped within snow that gives it its insulating properties. Freezing and thawing of the interior walls caused by human activity in the house actually adds strength to the structure. Among the Inuit iglu is simply the word for house, and so  all these various types of house structures were called iglus. Today most Inuit people live in modern houses, but snow houses are still used for temporary housing during hunts or for emergency shelter.  Arctic and Antarctic explorers such as Roald Amundsen, who pioneered expeditions to the North and South Poles, learned to make snow houses from the Inuit to protect themselves from severe cold. [1]

Schoolwelcome600_0817r “A Midnight Bell: the school-committee-man’s welcome,” Hoyt’s theater poster, 1896.Prints and Photographs Division (

The discovery of making things with snow often begins with a snowball, usually in childhood.  I learned how to make snowballs from other children when I was very small, and that is probably a fairly common experience for children in climates with winter snow.  Snowballs can be projectiles used to play a prank on someone, “weapons” in play battles, or they may be made simply for entertainment.

The Prints and Photographs Division online catalog provides a wide range of images of snowball fights and an interesting glimpse into  the history of the snowball. (search on “snowball,”  “snow ball” and “snow battle”).   A Hoyt’s theater poster for the play A Midnight Bell (left) shows children pelting a “school committee-man” with snowballs as a comical prank.  Such pranks can be elevated to social criticism, beyond children showing disrespect for their elders. In a World War I poster from France titled “La Petite Guerre,” children are shown with a snow figure made to look like the Kaiser, and  are pelting it with snowballs.

WWII snowball fight between Austrailian troops and Arabs in Israel.
Snow scenes. Australian soldiers & Arabs snowballing on Jaffa Road, Israel, 1942. G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

Snowball throwing as a prank may become a battle if the victim reciprocates, or snow battles may be organized in advance with parties agreeing on the location and terms. The rules of such battles may vary widely and change depending on the participants involved. There are several photos of Senate pages getting some winter exercise by throwing snowballs, including this 1923 fight that pitted Republicans against Democrats.

Though we often think of children throwing snowballs, there seems to be no limit on the age or social status of participants. In a photo taken near the White House in about 1925 Secretary of Labor James J. Davis and Secretary of War John W. Weeks are seen to indulge in snowball throwing. An interesting series of photos from World War II shows a snowball fight between Arabs and Australian soldiers in Israel. The information on these photos is incomplete, but apparently the event that the snow battle interrupted was a radio interview with Syrian violinist Sami al-Shawa by Ajaj Eff of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, who, judging from the snow on their coats, were both involved in the fun.[2]  A similar event was captured in a sketch by news artist Alfred R. Waud during the Civil War, with different divisions of the Confederate Army indulging in a mock battle after a snowfall in Georgia.

Children use a sled to transport blocks of snow and stack them to build a fort.
Morton County, North Dakota. Building snow fort at noon recess at a rural school. 1942. Prints and Photographs Division.

Snowball fights of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have evolved beyond the folk game.  Yukigassen, which means “snow battle” in Japanese, has become an international sport with highly competitive teams, set rules, protective wear for the players, and even a machine for making snowballs of uniform size for fairness.  Originating  on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, Yukigassen became a tournament sport in 1989 and now draws teams from all over the world.

Sometimes snow forts may be built for defense and to provide a place where a stockpile of snowballs may be kept.  These forts may be simple walls or elaborate structures. In the photo of children building a snow fort in North Dakota (left), similarities can be seen in its structure to Inuit snow houses, though the children are clearly less experienced at the craft.  They use a piece of cardboard on top of their fort to provide support for chunks of hard snow placed on top. Another method of making snow forts is to pack snowballs together and fill in the gaps between them. Snow structures are not always fortifications for snow battles but may also be built for their own sake as a winter play house. Where snow is plentiful and cold weather long enough, elaborate “castles” may evolve from children’s simple snow forts. As is the case with Inuit snow houses, natural thawing and freezing can help to increase the strength and durability of snow forts and castles.

Japanese children rolling large snowballs.
Snow Balls,” by American artist Bertha Boynton Lum, ca. 1913. Prints and Photographs Division.

Japanese traditions often highlight the seasons and, just as there are events for viewing cherry blossoms in the spring (a tradition that has come to the United States), there are traditions for viewing snow. In Japanese art on the theme of winter, people may be depicted making large snowballs for pleasure. The subjects are often women or children. The eighteenth century print at this link, “Ukie yukimi shuen no zu“  by Toyoharu Utagawa, shows a winter drinking party for viewing the snow. In the background of the print on the left, a woman can be seen making a large snowball. Bertha Boynton Lum, an American artist known for bringing awareness of Japanese printmaking to the west, picked up on this custom of snowball-making in her woodcut print, “Snow Balls” (right).

Three children with a snowman
The snow man–happy days.” Niagara Falls, New York, ca. 1888. Photo by George Barker. Prints and Photographs Division.

What to do with snowballs? The next step in the common tradition is often to build snowmen or snow women, and sometimes snow cats, dogs, or other sculptures.  For Europeans and their descendants in North America, snow people usually begin with three balls of decreasing size stacked up to make the torso and head. The lowest ball is also sometimes sculpted to look like legs as in the example seen in this stereo card (left). Making snow people is often a group activity of several children or adults and children. If only adults are involved, the snow sculpture may turn to more ambitious subjects.

A man in traditional dress stops to retie his footwear in front of a large snow sculpture of a Daruma. His parasol is on the ground next to him.
Okuramae no Yuki” (Snow at Onkuramae), by Hirokage Utagawa. Woodcut print 1859. Prints and Photographs Division

The traditional three-ball snow person found in Europe and North America is not universal. In Japan, snow people are usually made using one large ball and one small one.  The snow people are called yukidaruma or “snow Daruma.”  “Daruma” refers to a Zen monk, the legendary founder of Zen, Bodhidharma. Daruma figurines are used as devotional objects for those aspiring to reach a goal. A common toy for children is doll representing Bodhidharma which only has a head and round torso. It is a type of tumbler doll, one that pops up when knocked over and  is intended to teach resilience.  Other tumbler dolls that are secular or represent Buddhist monks are also given to children and have a similar shape.  Since these toys are often given as New Year’s gifts, they have an association with winter. The familiar shape of this doll gives rise to the two-snowball yukidaruma snow sculptures made by both children and adults in Japan. Although the tradition refers to a monk, Daruma “princesses” also appear as dolls. Similarly, snow figures may also be female. In the block print on the right, a man stops on the path to adjust his foot gear in front of a large yukidaruma. [Since this article was written, I have added blog on a different Japanese snow sculpture. See “Yuki Usagi: The Japanese Snow Hare,” in Folklife Today, January 14, 2018.]

Snow sculptures and snow castles have developed into other forms of winter art. Sometimes remarkable works of snow art show up in front and back yards, but the largest works are often created for commercial or civic promotions.  Elaborate snow and ice works began appearing in Canadian and US winter festivals as a way of drawing tourists in the late nineteenth century. In more recent years, large snow sculptures and snow and ice sculpture competitions have arisen as part of winter festivities in many parts of the world.  For snow sculptors, mixtures of ice and snow are often used to make large works of art stronger.  Artists may melt the snow to encourage it to freeze again in a desired shape, or spray it with water to build up a frozen surface. The current Guinness record holder for the largest snow person was “Olympia SnowWoman,” created in February 2008 in Bethel, Maine by residents of the town. Named for the Maine stateswoman Olympia Snowe, the sculpture was one hundred twenty-two feet and one inch tall and made from an estimated thirteen million pounds of snow.


1. A photograph of a snow shelter made by the Arctic exploration team of Frederick Cook is available via the Prints and Photographs catalog. Cook was encouraged to learn Inuit survival techniques by Rolad Amundsen.

2. The library has sequence of the photographs of this snowball fight in Israel, at this link.

Comments (3)

  1. This is a wonderful post that we will share with our teachers and their students. Thank you!

  2. A Japanese snow sculpture tradition I did not include in this article is that of making snow rabbits since I did not know very much about it. I know a little more, but I wonder if there are readers who can say more about this custom. Snow rabbits are small sculptures, often pictured as being made on trays in Japanese woodblock prints. “Ukie yukimi shuen no zu” by Toyoharu Utagawa mentioned with a in the article above shows a woman making a snow rabbit on a tray in the lower left hand corner ( ). Traditionally the rabbits are given red eyes using nandina berries. The ears might be made using two long nandina leaves, or they might have ears shaped of snow. They are always depicted crouching. The symbolism of the rabbit has a number of possible meanings; peace, good luck, prosperity, fertility, and spring (perhaps hopes of spring in this case) are among these. I gather that this tradition is practiced among some Japanese Americans. Does anyone have memories of making snow rabbits?

  3. ….As a lifelong makeup artist I have always felt a connection w any art forms that are consumed or melt away….seems so many of those have strong folk art content …say a lot about place and beauty values of a group.
    I have never done, but always been interested in ice and sand structures sculptures. It seems in modern USA, that some artists do both, serially/seasonally.
    Thanks for this beautiful article!

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