The Evolution of Christmas: Santa Claus from 1900-1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the first two decades of the 20th century, the image of Santa Claus that we mainly recognize today became pretty well standardized.  His rotund girth, red suit trimmed in white fur, the hearty laugh and the twinkling eyes were fully established characteristics of old St. Nick.

His beard might be longer than in most renderings, but this cover from a 1903 Christmas cantata, “Around the World with Santa Claus” from the museum’s collection has Santa looking like the modern St. Nick we all know well.

In some examples from the 1910s, we see Santa as described above.  The last post spotlighted an 1890s Christmas cantata, or vocal and instrumental performance often used in religious settings, with a Santa image.  This post features one titled “Around the World with Santa Claus” from the same publisher in 1903 and shows Kris Kringle looking very modern, indeed.

A holiday postcard (in the 1910s, postcards significantly cut into the Christmas card’s dominance in communicating with loved ones during the holidays, though, by the 1920s, that trend had largely ended) postmarked in December 1914 has a curious little image.

This detail from a holiday postcard, postmarked December 1914 and from the Homestead collection, shows Santa in his red suit, trimmed in white, though his monogrammed satchel is certainly a departure from the norm.  His carrying a ladder to ascend a house’s roof seems to indicate the reindeer and sleigh are parked at ground level nearby!

Santa appears to have left his reindeer and sleigh somewhere at ground level and is trudging along carrying a tall wooden ladder.  Note his satchel, monogrammed with his initials, although it seems hard to believe he was carrying gifts in something that small!

A cover illustration for a 1917 book from a Chicago publisher, Merry Christmas Entertainments, has St. Nick busily working at a woodworking table with a hand plane.  Examples of his (or perhaps that of his elves, as well?) handiwork in the form of several types of dolls are present.  He works by candlelight and a festive wreath hangs behind the table.  Both the postcard and the book cover are in line with the orthodox renderings of Santa during the era.

Here is a detail from a 1917 holiday entertainment book from the museum’s collection showing Santa busily using a planer to make a toy.  Again, he is looking very typical of the modern depiction of the first years of the 20th century.

Yet, there was a continuing trend in the occasional depiction of Kris Kringle utilizing new or recent technology as part of his rapidly expanding operations at the Christmas season.  The last post showed one of these with regards to his use of the telephone in an 1890s stereoscopic photograph.  It was also noted, incidentally, that the use of photography to show Santa was an innovation of those last years of the 19th century.

While Santa traditionally has utilized his reindeer and sleigh to make his Christmas rounds to deliver gifts to children the world over, the first part of the new century did give rise to his moving into newer forms of transportation.

One of these was the zeppelin or dirigible, which for a few decades was highly touted as a means of long-distance transportation–at least until its Achilles’ heel, the massive amount of helium and thin membrane used to keep the aircraft aloft, was notoriously revealed in the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937.

Atypical in this 1909 postcard from the museum’s collection is Santa’s embrace of new transportation technology.  Using a dirigible called the “Santa Claus Special,” Kris Kringle uses a spyglass to see what’s going on through a heavy snowfall.

But, in 1909, when the postcard shown here appeared, Santa was making use of a dirigible, appropriately titled the “Santa Claus Special” to deliver gifts on his Christmas rounds.  It appears that St. Nick is using a spyglass to peer through the wintry weather. This, however, proved to be just one new way of getting around!

A 1917 postcard has Santa flying solo in a biplane for his gift-giving excursions, but this is a specially constructed plane with a sleigh for a cockpit!  How Santa could have two large sacks loaded with gifts, a wrapped package, and a Christmas tree on the lower wing is unexplained in terms of keeping the craft properly balanced in flight!

Check out this customized biplane with a sleigh for a cockpit, though we might question the wisdom of stacking two large sacks of presents, a large wrapped package, and a Christmas tree on the lower wing!   This card, postmarked in December 1917, is also from the Homestead’s collection.

This series showing the evolution of depictions of Santa in illustrations and photographs concludes in a couple of days with a look at how Kris Kringle appeared during the 1920s, so stay tuned!

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