Way Past Frosty: An Uncensored History of the Snowman

The snowman might seem an innocent icon, but its history is not all G-rated, writes Bob Eckstein in The History of the Snowman.

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(Soundbite of song, "Frosty the Snowman")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul, with a corncob pipe…

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) …and a button nose…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) …and two eyes made out of coal. Frosty the snowman is a fairy tale, they say. He was made of snow but the children know how he came to life one day.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found. For when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around.

ALISON STEWART, host:

All right. Here's a holiday tip for you, "Frosty the Snowman" airs this Friday night on the TV. And as you nestle to watch your favorite animated holiday special on the tube, you might want to consider how three balls of snows, some coal, a carrot nose became an iconic image of a winter wonderland.

It's a history that goes all the way back to the Dark Ages. Some ghastly snow forms, apparently, wandered into some anatomically-correct bodily busts, arriving today at the lovable lumps of snow we see, used to sell - among other things - rap records, toys, apparently some alcohol, too.

The man who did all this digging on this is Bob Eckstein, the author of "The History of the Snowman." You many have seen Bob's illustrations on the New Yorker or Time Out, including, of course, some cartoons about Snowman.

Hi, Bob.

Mr. BOB ECKSTEIN (Author, "The History of the Snowman"): Thank you very much. Hi.

STEWART: So, some of the gee-whiz facts that you compiled on this book are great. Number of snow items for sale - snowman items for sale on eBay: 37,000. Five hundred books with snowman in the title. Do you have a favorite snowman fact?

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Well, mine's more of a historic slant. I really like the fact that one of the earliest photographs actually contains a snowman, and that's from 1845. In other words, the very first photograph of the snowman? It's -actually, one of the first photographs.

STEWART: Period.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Yeah.

STEWART: Wow.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Not the first photograph, but it's pretty amazing that the first, you know, the pioneering photographers, they had a snowman in one of the pictures.

STEWART: Now, I have to ask you, you're an illustrator, a comedic writer.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Right.

STEWART: How did you sort of decide to stumble into snowman history?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Well, actually, about six years ago when I decided to write a book, I wanted to do something about life's mysteries, try to solve some kind of big question. And this book could have been who wrote the first joke, or who made the first sandwich. But I kind of went into the bookstores and tried to find a holiday book - on the personal level, I was trying to shop for something. And I found that there was nothing that was like for non-denominational sort of holiday book that wasn't cookbooks, or something like that.

And I stumbled upon the idea of the snowman. Now, I want to get into the snowman subject, I realized I had made a great choice, because there was all these dark stories and this really rich history.

Another inspiration for this book was Tim Burton's movie "The Batman." When "Batman" came out, I wasn't a big fan of the movie per se, but I love the idea that he turned this whole subject on its head. Batman was this campy, kid-friendly TV character. And he, instead, took this whole dark side to it, and he tried to find a heart and a soul for "Batman."

And I was thinking for the snowman, I mean, I wanted to find a heart and a soul for the snowman, find out really what was its rich history.

STEWART: So when was the first snowman built?

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Well, the first documented snowman I found was in 1380, an illuminated manuscript. And - of course, snowmen were made before that. But I can prove that snowmen are documented with this illuminated manuscript. And there's an illustration in the margins of this passage, which is actually about the crucifixion of Christ.

STEWART: Oh, my gosh.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Yes.

STEWART: So you are talking about the dark side of the snowman. For a while there, it seems like snowman - in pop culture, anyway - could be serial killers. You talked about they could sell products like alcohol.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Right. You're describing what I call the white trash years, which is - includes slasher movies. And you also have - even worse - the chochkes that came out on eBay and everything else.

But actually, that's not the opposite of what I - when I said I want to turn the snowman on its head, the opposite would not be the slasher movies and that sort of thing.

I wanted to turn it on its head and take it from something that was not taken serious to something that was taken serious. Although, my book tries to be humorous and entertaining, that to me was the opposite, taking the snowman to a different level. And that - and, too, 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 it's one - maybe it's one of man's oldest forms of art.

STEWART: It's interesting. Some of the reactions to your book on Amazon has been pretty positive. One guy got really into it, this guy from El Paso. Have you seen his comment?

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Maybe.

STEWART: He says, it appears to me the snowman…

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, they make a lot of snowman in El Paso, you know.

STEWART: Yeah, right. It appears to me the snowman is or has become nothing more than a parallel, ancillary alter ego for selves in the times in which we live.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Okay. I wouldn't even take it that serious myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ECKSTEIN: That's a little overboard.

BURBANK: Does it say something about a person if you build a traditional snowman of the three, you know, circles, versus making something that more resembles a human figure, does it mean something about the maker of the snowman?

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Well, that's interesting. I mean, also to address his question or his statement, I've always felt there's two things that makes snowman making so popular is man's sort of instinct to want to depict themselves, whether it's on a cave or what - you know, making artwork out of clay. And surely, man made snowmen back then, it was just that they melted. But the other aspect is that man always has wanted to put one thing on top of another.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ECKSTEIN: And so, these two things also - was always a reflection of the times. Whatever culture it was at the time, man was depicting himself and also the issues of the day. So, to that writer who was talking about racism and all the different issues, well, sure, man was always making snowmen reflecting his times. He was sort of like a frozen Forrest Gump, you know, always there at the bench marks of important moments in our changing times. And I think that the snowman has always been sort of that bench mark.

STEWART: And so snowman's not just for kids, is what you're telling me.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Right, right. I mean, actually, the further back you go, you find that people were really fascinated with snowmen. A very popular activity in the Middle Ages would be after a snow came down and dumped all these free-art supplies in front of everyone's house…

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: …people would make snowman, would be made by artists and real craftsman. And…

STEWART: And Bob, you know what? I'm going to have to stop right there…

Mr. ECKSTEIN: I'm sorry. Okay.

STEWART: …unfortunately. No, but that's a good tease, because if you're listening to us on Sirius Satellite Radio, you're going to be reading in the New York area tonight, the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. So you'll get to hear the rest of that story. Or I'll hear it from you on the break, and I'll post it on our blog. Bob Eckstein is the author of "The History of the Snowman."

Thank you so much for coming into the studio.

Mr. ECKSTEIN: Thank you very much.

BURBANK: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT: Blues Traveler.

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