The Evolution of Christmas: Santa Claus in the 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the last post in this series noted, Thomas Nast is generally credited for establishing, from the Civil War years through the end of the 1870s, the modern image of Santa Claus, with respect to his rotundness, jolly appearance, and other essential attributes.

This isn’t to say that his lead was universally accepted, however.  There were still plenty of variations in the physical representation of old St. Nick by artists, illustrators and cartoonists.  Some still portrayed Kris Kringle as a dwarf-like figure and more slender (all the easier, of course, to sashay down that chimney stack and into the home).  Others experimented with his ensemble of clothing and the colors.

It was true, though, that the Nast template was taking hold.  For example, in the 8 January 1884 edition of the magazine Harper’s Young People, which appeared from 1879 to 1899 and was geared towards children, an illustrator identified as “A.B.F.” contributed a rendering to Sophie Swett’s short story, “The Crust of the Christmas Pie.”

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Here is a Santa Claus that looks to be influenced by Thomas Nast in an illustration by “A.B.F.” in the 8 January 1884 issue of Harper’s Young People, a copy of which is in the Homestead’s collection.

The drawing, titled “Who’s [sic] Little Girl Are You?” shows a Santa that clearly takes from the Nast concept.  St. Nick has a full long beard, a long coat with a wide belt, a soft cap on his head and boots.  He stands in an open doorway with adults and children, while a young girl of perhaps five or six years of age gazes at him in wonderment.

Recall that Nast originally drew a Santa who quietly sneaked into homes while youngsters (the age of the artist’s own brood) were sound asleep, before he changed his concept to have Santa meet face-to-face with youngsters, as Nast’s own children aged.  In the story, the main character, young Phemie sneaks out of bed to try to catch a gander at Santa and espies him while Mr. Claus is taking gifts from a tree to give to older guests.  Here’s what Phemie saw:

the jolliest-looking little fellow imaginable, with red cheeks, a frosty-looking nose, a big pack on his back, and smudges of soot, which he must have got on in coming down the chimney!

After crying out with joy at seeing St. Nick, Phemie found that “Santa Claus approached her with such a kindly, beaming face . . . and gave her a big horn filled with candy” before asking her the question that was the caption of the image (though now grammatically proper), “Whose little girl are you?”  The little girl’s response: “I am yours, if you are Santa Claus.”

This fantastic circa 1880s postcard album cover from the museum’s collection shows a group of Santa Clauses wearing red robes, though not as rotund and tall as the image of St. Nick was more commonly becoming.

Note that Swett’s description of Santa was that he was a “little fellow,” which corresponds to the other images highlighted here.  One is a very rare example of a holiday scrapbook, perhaps for Christmas cards and other holiday items.

On the cover are a quartet of Santas, with one making a toy, another descending down a chimney, a third putting a gift into a stocking, and the fourth evidently enjoying his pipe after the holiday was done.  Here, again, Santa is a little person and, while his long robe is red, it seems to have a hood and Kris Kringle sports a garland around his head, to boot.

This trade card from the Homestead’s collection was placed in one-pound cans of Lion-brand coffee, produced by the Woolson Spice Company.  Note his bright green outfit!

In another example, from a trade card issued by the Ohio-based Woolson Spice Company in one-pound cans of the firm’s Lion-brand coffee, Santa is stone cold asleep and his empty pack seems to indicate he’d finished his frantic global deliveries.  But, a group of children appear to be trying to awake the slumbering St. Nick.  Note that his suit is green, trimmed with brown fur and that he appears to be taller and heavier-set than the album cover.

Finally, there is another card that looks to be from a woodblock illustration.  This version shows a wide-awake Santa with a fully-loaded pack ready to shimmy down the chimney stack while his reindeer and sleigh are parked on what looks like an astonishingly long flat roof.  Though not in color, the image shows a Santa who looks to be both tall and portly, more, again, of the Nast variety.

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In what may be another trade card from the 1880s and also in the museum collection, Santa here is, again, more of the Nast variety, tall and heavy-set.

The next post in this series will take us to the 1890s, where varieties are still to found in depictions of Santa, but photography takes the image of Santa to a more realistic plane!

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