A Brief History of the Department Store Santa Claus

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The presence of Santa Claus at malls and department stores across America is a Christmas tradition in the U.S. Just how did this annual practice first start?

Who exactly was the First Department Store Santa?

Even though there is some question as to who was the first person to put on a Santa suit and greet kids at a store, it is widely believed to have been James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts. Edgar, who was kindly known as “Colonel Jim,” owned a dry goods store named Edgar’s. Prior to Christmas in 1890, Edgar took the train in to Boston, where he had a Santa suit custom tailored for him. With just a few weeks to go until the big Christmas Day, Edgar appeared at his store dressed as Santa Claus, much to the delight ofthe local children.

By the turn of the century (1900), Santa Claus was showing up in booths at department stores in major cities acros the U.S. and Canada. Long lines of children waited anxiously to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas and to tell him that they had been good boys and girls. It wasn’t until some time later though, that the tradition parents having their kids’ pictures taken with Santa, started.

Who was the First Person to offer pictures with Santa?

Again, there is some controversy as to where exactly the practice started, but many believe that it began across the country from Boston, in Seattle, Washington. Art “Happy” French was a photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1943. One December day, while sitting in his office across from the Frederick & Nelson department store in downtown Seattle, French noticed that the management had moved Santa from deep within its store to a street-side display window. Seeing all of those children waiting in line and then finally climbing on to Santa’s lap, it occurred to French that he could probably make quite a bit of money by offering to take the children’s pictures as they sat with Santa.

The following year, French took a leave from the newspapcer, and got permission from the department store to set up a photo concession booth right next to Santa’s booth. He used a hidden large format camera to capture candid portraits of the children sitting on Santa’s lap. He then offered to sell the photos to the parents. The practice was so successful that French did it again in 1945. Frederick netted $10,000 during his three weeks of shooting Santa pictures in 1945. This was three times his annual salary from the Post-Intelligencer. In March of 1946, Time magazine ran an article that profiled French and his lucrative side business. So, while French may or may not have been the first person to start taking and selling Santa pictures, he was certainly one of the most successful people at the time.

Santa Claus Fun Facts

  • Santa was real…in a way. The idea for Santa Claus was based off of Saint Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. St. Nicholas was known as an anonymous gift giver.
  • Santa Claus has only been around for 200 years. While the Dutch kept the spirit of St. Nicholas alive with Sinterklaas, a bishop who delivered toys to children on December 5th, it wasn’t until 1773 that name “Santa Claus” first appeared in a New York city newspaper.
  • Santa gained a lot of weight in 1809. In his satirical A History of New York, author Washington Irving described Santa as a portly and jolly fellow instead of the thin bishop that had been Santa until then.  Irving was also the first person to describe Santa as sliding down chimneys.
  • The Reindeer came along 13 years later. In Clement Moore’s poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas  (better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Santa is portrayed as having a sleigh guided by “eight tiny reindeer.”
  • The modern image of Santa Claus first appeared in a Coca Cola ad. Though he had been portrayed in red suit for some time beforehand, Santa as the jolly old man in a red and white suit first appeared in a Coca Cola ad campaign in 1931.

Sources

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