Santa Claus: An Alternative Image

Posted on December 17, 2021

This post is written by Kelvin Ramsey ('79), donor and member of the Libraries' Board of Directors.

 

The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published in 1823 and attributed to Clement Clarke Moore as author in 1837. By the advent of stereoviews in the 1850’s, the poem was established in popular American culture. Thomas Nast has been credited with one of the first illustrations of Santa in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, in which Santa wears a stars and stripes outfit that is fur-lined. He later refined the image in 1881 to a more modern view, with the red outfit, big belt buckle, and white fur lining. The image was further solidified by the 1930 Coca Cola Santa, illustrated by artist Fred Mizen. Yet the Santa image could have taken a different direction. Around 1872, F.G. Weller of Littleton, N.H. published a series of six stereoviews depicting scenes from the famous poem, and three of the images featured Santa Claus. In fact, these may have been among the first photographic depictions of Santa Claus.

Stereoview showing Santa before the chimney
Stereoview, "A Bundle of Toys He Had on His Back," ca. 1872

This image was titled “A bundle of toys he had on his back…”  Santa is in front of a fireplace, where three stockings are filled. I wonder if the owner of the white stocking was “naughty.” Santa's dress includes a fur hat, a shaggy fur coat, and striped pants. If you look carefully, there are fur gloves at his knees. He has a smoking pipe in his left hand. His beard could have used a little more work, and looks to be made of the same material as the fringe from his hat. There are lots of toys: a drum and sticks, horns, a wagon, a doll carriage, a log house, a wagon, a toy gun, a toy horse, several chairs for dolls, and a few things I cannot identify. Is his pack a suitcase that a pile of toys is resting on? I can’t quite make out what the thing sticking out of his pocket at his right elbow might be...I think it may be a flute. And what is the stick that he is holding in his hand? I think it is a toy sword with a string around the hand guard; or is it some sort of ball that slides up and down a stick?

Santa stereoviews are common.  Many of them depict Santa’s fur outfit as late as 1900. By 1900, however, the more "traditional" view of Santa began to appear, but all stereoviews were black and white images, so we don’t know if red had become the standard color. I have yet to see a stereoview depicting Santa with reindeer (Thank you Gene Autry for popularizing Rudolph!).

Consider that this was the image of Santa that evolved into what we have today: no pointy hat, no signature red costume with the big belt buckle; instead, a fur-bedecked Santa. Somehow I don’t think that it would be a popular fashion choice these days. Images in popular culture commonly go through an evolutionary process before a single image wins out. But don’t you think a fur-coated Santa would have been much more comfortable on those nighttime sleigh runs in the freezing cold of December than a red cotton suit?

For more about Thomas Nast’s images of Santa go to:

 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/civil-war-cartoonist-created-mode...

NB: Nast's illustrations were not without controversy and racist depictions. Read more about the problematic aspects of Nast's imagery here: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/reconstruction-thom...