The Evolution of Christmas: Santa Claus in the 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

By the end of the 19th century, there were some notable shifts in the depiction of Santa Claus in the United States.  One was in the area of music.  Until about the 1890s, sheet music generally lacked illustrations, but some examples in the Homestead’s collection of published cantatas (pieces with vocals and instrumentals, often with a dramatic structure) devoted to holiday themes show St. Nick.


For example, Santa Claus Vision, published in 1894, shows a Kris Kringle that was rapidly become the standard, thanks to the work of Thomas Nast and other illustrators as mentioned in earlier posts in this series.  Note his white fur-lined coat and cap, as well as his full, long beard.  As he sits in front of a candle-lit Christmas tree, Santa pours a gaggle of toys out of his bag, including dolls, drums, a baseball, a hobby horse and a great deal more.


Another area of change was in the use of photography to popularize Santa.  A group of stereoscopic photographs produced in 1897 by Benjamin W. Kilburn, a prolific and popular producer of the era, shows St. Nick in much the same general appearance as in the cantata cover.  In one of these, titled “The Night Before Christmas”, Santa carries his overflowing pack of toys into a house ready to deposit them beneath the Christmas tree, partially visible at the left.


A second Kilburn-issued stereoview brings in a technological shift.  “Reindeers with Toys Are On The Way” depicts Kris Kringle on the telephone, though it is not clear who is delivering the message about Santa’s flying helpers.  Is he letting someone know what is happening or is he being informed of the arrival of more goodies for children?  In any case, note the tree laden with all kinds of garlands, ornaments and other decorations, while dolls in a buggy, drums, and other toys are about the parlor.

As standardized as the above images of Santa were, there were still varying representations to be found.  A couple of trade cards from the museum’s collection show this in terms of Mr. Claus’ body type and with respect to the color of his clothing.


One called “The Arrival” and issued by Purinton, a New York company that made furnaces and cookers among other items, shows a Santa more typical of earlier decades.  He is shorter and leaner than recent depictions and wears a blue coat, red cap and brown trousers.  He also carries a more traditional basket of toys on his back rather than the sack or pack that had become more popular in recent years.


Another card hearkens back to former days, as well.  This one shows St. Nick as a dwarf-like figure in a brown robe that makes him look almost like a monk.  He faces what looks like a family of five who have presented him with some food, a necessity on that long journey through the world on Christmas Eve.

Clearly, there was still some time to go before the standardized Santa was settled upon, but we’ll be seeing that as we continue with our examination of images of Mr. Claus in the first few decades of the 20th century.


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