The Evolution of Modern Day Santa
It was in an 1870 edition of A Visit From Saint Nicholas that Saint Nicholas wore a red cloth coat. Thomas Nast has depicted him in a reddish brown outfit, trimmed in white ermine, in 1866. This illustration appeared in George P. Walker’s verse story Santa Claus And His Works was probably a major contributor to the idea that Santa wore red. Walker’s story also contributed the legend of Santa Claus that he lives in the North Pole.
In the early twentieth century, red Santa Claus suits became popular and were sold by department stores and mail-order houses such as Sears and Roebuck.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, stores began referring to themselves as “Santa Claus headquarters.” One of the first was J.W. Parkinson’s in Philadelphia in 1841. The owner, Mr. Parkinson, had a real “Criscringle” come down a chimney above the door of his store right before the eyes of the children present. It was a great success and in 1846, Mr. Parkinson was advertising his store as “Kriss Kringle’s Headquarters.”
It took forty years for another store to catch on and expand the idea. The Boston Store in Brockton, Massachusetts, became the father of department Santas when it hired Edgar, a Scottish immigrant, who tall, roly-poly, with a white beard, a warm voice and a hearty laugh, to be Santa Claus. To top it off, he loved children. In 1890 he darned a Santa Claus to wear during after school hours. But his fame spread so rapidly that within a few days long lines had formed outside the store and more parents and children arrived by train as far away as Providence, Rhode Island. Before the turn of the century, department stores across America had added Santa Claus and even sat him on a throne. Children sat on his knee and whispered their deepest secrets into his ears.
Also in the latter part of the eighteen hundreds, children wrote letters to Santa Claus. By the 1890s post offices were overrun with letters for Santa each December. There was great diversity in the correct spelling o his and where he lived – South or North Pole – as well as what to do with the letters. Mail clerks gravely stamped them with a certification that the addressee could not be found and forwarded them to the dead letter office in Washington.
But children had faith in the Postal Service and knew Santa would get their letters. They came from children from all walks of life. One Christmas Eve, eight-year-old Edsel Ford, son of Henry and Clara Ford, and the future president of the Ford Motor Company, penned his letter in Detroit, Michigan:
Dear Santa Claus:
I Havent Had Any Christmas Tree in 4 Years And I Have Broken My Trimmings And I Want A Pair of Roller Skates And A Book, I Cant Think Of Any Thing More. I Want You To Think O Something More.
Though no mention was made of her, Santa Claus’ wife made her debut in 1899 in Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, one of a set of thirty-two books by Katharine Lee Bates, composer of “America the Beautiful. In 1908, another story encouraged children to start leaving a little food for Santa Claus because he would be tired after his hard work. Carrots and other treats were later added for his reindeer. Of course, Santa always left a note thanking the children for their kindness. A 1910 advertisement for Ivory Soap showed a child sitting in front of the fireplace with a bowl of water, a towel and a bar of Ivory soap so that Santa could wash up after coming down the chimney. Following the ad to the letter, soiled wash clothes and dirty water was often found on Christmas morning.