Santa Claus, A Century Ago

Born in the 1960s, I was in the prime audience for Rankin/Bass Studio’s stop motion animation productions. For me, movies like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus defined what I knew about the guy in a red suit who delivered toys on Christmas Eve. In fact, even though I was in college by the time it came out, it was a 1985 Rankin/Bass production that opened my eyes to a wider world of Santa lore. That year they released a production of L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This was the first time I’d learned that the guy who created The Wizard of Oz actually wrote a Santa story. It also struck me that the Santa portrayed was somewhat different than the one portrayed in those earlier Rankin/Bass productions. He lived in a magical land, not at the North Pole, and he had a whole assortment of magical helpers and foes, not just the little elves I’d known from the shows I’d grown up with.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published in 1902. As it turns out, this was during the era when the popularity of Santa Claus really began taking off, not only in the United States but around the world. It’s also the era when Santa really began to take on his most familiar characteristics. As you can see in the book cover, when The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was published, the publisher didn’t feel the need the put Santa in his now-iconic red suit. Here we see Santa in a black suit with leopard fur and red pants. Up until this point, the most iconic Santa had been the version popularized by Thomas Nast, who portrayed Santa in a number of different colored coats (when he appeared in color) and often with a hat that was more fur or holly sprigs than red with a white pom-pom.

Curious about how the modern Santa developed from the beginning of the twentieth century through World War I, I started looking for images online. I found a wonderful article tracing the development of Santa Claus in illustration at The Public Domain Review, which is the source of the illustrations in this post. Go there if you want to see even more about Santa’s development.

Our modern, iconic image of Santa is often credited to a series of advertisements painted by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola beginning in 1931. However, the article at The Public Domain Review suggests that Santa in his modern form first appeared on the cover of Puck magazine in 1902, illustrated by Frank A. Nankivell. This is also the earliest illustration I can recall with ladies showing their appreciation for Santa’s gifts. As a bearded man who had grown somewhat broader around the mid-section as I’ve grown older, I must admit a certain appreciation for this trope.

Puck, Christmas 1902

As I continued my explorations of Santa Claus’s development through the early part of the twentieth century, I came to the blog “A Signal from Mars,” which discusses material from the Lowell Observatory archives. In it, I found a wonderful post depicting several photos of Percival Lowell, the man who popularized the idea of Martian canals, dressed as Santa on the observatory grounds in 1911. You can view the images at: https://asignalfrommars.wordpress.com/2018/12/03/up-on-the-rooftop/

Public Domain Review shares evidence of Santa’s growing worldwide appeal with the following 1914 illustration of Santa from Japan. We also see that Santa’s now-iconic image is making its way around the world a few years before the Coca-Cola ads.

Santa Claus visits a child in 1914 Japan.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself wondering how Santa fared during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I couldn’t find many photos from that period, but I did find an account of a visit by Santa to western Nebraska. Santa arrived in town by Union Pacific Railroad on December 2 and was immediately mobbed by children. Unfortunately, this put Santa in violation of a public gathering ordinance. The police soon arrived and stripped poor Santa of his hat and beard and put him in jail. The kids came together, though, and raised Santa’s bail money.

US Food Administration Poster

I’ll wrap up with this poster produced by the US Food Administration in 1918 showing Santa, Uncle Sam, and a soldier. It’s message “Peace: Your Gift to the Nation” seems especially apt today in the wake of a contentious election. I hope as COVID-19 vaccines roll out and a new year dawns, our nation can once again find peace and unity. Wishing you all a happy and peaceful holiday season!

6 comments on “Santa Claus, A Century Ago

  1. Sandi says:

    Thank you for this “Santa Survey”. I will have to check out the different points of interest. (I didn’t know Baum wrote a Santa story, either!)

    • Glad you enjoyed it. It’s fairly easy to find Baum’s Life and Adventure of Santa Claus now — a lot of publishers have done their own version since it entered the public domain. My favorite is a hardcover edition illustrated by Michael Hague.

  2. Thanks for sharing that–I learned some things!

    As my first professionally published piece (a poem) mentions Santa Claus, and as my currently awaiting playtesting/peer review *GURPS* roleplaying book talks a little bit about Santa Claus, I’ll throw in my two cents.

    Louisa May Alcott was perhaps the first to give Santa his elves, and that back in 1856. But there’s debate about the origin of elves. Some say they go back to the Norse álfar or huldufólk, the latter of which translates to “hidden folk.” And a form of the word “elf” exists in the *Royal Prayer Book* of the late eighth to early ninth century.

    But the most famous elf is this: Santa Claus. Even though I’d heard the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas” many times, it was many years before I thought seriously about St. Nick being an elf. Having grown up seeing the plus-sized human Santa in stores, I didn’t take the phrase “right jolly old elf” too seriously. But not only is he called an elf, historically his image had been blended with that of a nissie, which was often depicted with a long white beard and sometimes a red-colored conical hat (think “small garden gnome.”) While Tolkien-influenced modern roleplaying games often depict elves as human sized (if thin), in the 1800s they were typically very small.

    And “A Visit from Saint Nicolas” goes further in its small elvish description. St. Nick works fast, which apparently includes coming down the chimney quickly. That’s something a very small if chubby elf could do, but not a full-sized, large-bellied, human man. And St. Nick is apparently small enough to be transported by “a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.”

    • Thank you. I’ll have to look up Louisa May Alcott’s depiction of Santa. The more I learn about her writing, the more hidden gems like that I find.

      You make a lot of great points about the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” Modern illustrations often show a full-sized human Santa, but the words paint a picture of something closer to the house elves of an earlier time. He almost seems a cousin of those elves who helped out a poor shoemaker in the Grimm fairy tales.

  3. Geri Lawhon says:

    Thanks for all of the Santa information. It is nice to have the history behind a story.

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