Anyone who remembers the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz probably recalls a scene in which Dorothy and her companions, having been placed under a sleep spell by the Wicked Witch, began getting snowed on while lying unconscious in the poppy field. Another film of that era, Holiday Inn, showed singer Bing Crosby in the final scene with snow falling all around as he sang the popular Irving Berlin song White Christmas.
The effects in both cases were created by showering the performers with chrysotile asbestos fibers, which resembles snow and was often used in those days not only on movie sets and in theaters, but in department store displays and even private homes. From the mid-1930s through the 1950s, asbestos was seen as a very versatile and harmless substance. It was also very inexpensive.
Modern fake snow products no longer use asbestos but for many years fake snow products were made by a large number of manufacturers under trade names such as “Pure White”, “White Magic” and “Snow Drift”. Ironically, it was on the advice of a firefighter in the late 1920s that fake snow production switched from cotton batting as a material (harmless, if a mild fire risk) to chrysotile asbestos. The outbreak of World War II ended the use of asbestos for fake snow production, as the material was needed for ships, planes, and other military applications.
It is difficult to estimate the hazard that was presented by asbestos-based fake snow products. Most asbestos applications involved some quantity of the fiber being used within a machine component or as part of a chemical compound that bound the fibers
up, making them difficult to inhale until the material became worn or damaged. Fake snow, however, was simply pure white asbestos fiber piled up in drifts around displays or in people’s homes. Children played with it. Anyone who had any contact with this material was inhaling asbestos fibers in quantities normally associated only with those who worked in asbestos mines. Fortunately asbestos fake snow was a seasonal product which limited exposure.
Joe Miller, AtticExplorer.com
We would like to thank Claire Brewer, Educational Outreach Coordinator, at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance for permission to reprint this material. Thanks to reader R. A. Allen for the photo of his box of White Magic Snow. Bing Crosby and the cast of White Christmas appears courtesy of an old movie poster. The Electric Institute’s Christmas 1934 photo is from the Library of Congress.
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