J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Thursday, February 09, 2017

The First Snowman

This picture was published at the end of a chapter in the first volume of A History of British Birds, published in 1797 by the English engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Bob Eckstein’s History of the Snowman says this was the first depiction of a snowman ever made.

Notes by Bewick’s daughter Jane supplied by the Bewick Society say the engraver depicted himself and his childhood friends in the early 1760s:
A view of Cherryburn – T.B. (mounted on the three-legged stool) & his companions making a snowman, which stood till it became a mass of ice to the great terror of sundry old women one of whom ran back to the house to tell what an “awsome sight she had seen”. . . .

the stout well dressed boy is Willy Johnson, who lived with his mother Barbara Johnson in the Hamlet below [Eltringham]. He died a fat good-tempered old man at Prudhoe where he farmed many years –

the ragged lad [at right] is Joe: Liddell son of Anthony Liddell mentioned in the memoir.
Mentioned as a Bible-citing poacher, that is.

The motto at the bottom is “Esto perpetua,” or “Let it last forever.” That’s an ironic comment on the snowman that would disappear at the next thaw. It was also the name of a club of British Whigs founded in 1785 to satirize the younger William Pitt’s party in Parliament, and one scholar has posited that Bewick drew the snowman to look like Pitt.


Anonymous said...

I find it very hard to believe that those children sculpted all that drapery.

J. L. Bell said...

There might well be artistic license involved in Bewick’s memory.

J. L. Bell said...

On the other hand, if we look closely, we can see the boy on the stool (Bewick) is holding a trowel, and there's a hoe on the ground below him. So he might indeed be sculpting the snow packed by the two boys with shovels while two others stand shivering and pleading, "Come on, Tommy! Can't we go inside now?"