The American publics infatuation with Santa Claus at the turn of the 20th century was not something new. Manufacturers and advertisers had been making use of the jolly old elf ever since 1823, when the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel anonymously published Clement Clark Moores A Visit from St. Nicholas.
Century-Old Yuletide Treasures
Novelty Santa Claus Postcards
In 1858, for instance, a bank in Boston issued $5 bills (in those days, banks could circulate their own currency) picturing Santa in his sleigh soaring over a rooftop. About the same time, M.A. Housted created a figural Santa bottle. Collectors are more familiar with the myriad of beautifully lithographed Victorian-era trade cards of Santa that merchants handed out to customers and companies stuffed into packages of their products.
Of all the holidays so vigorously celebrated by postcard publishers a century ago, the Christmas season was far and away the winner. And of all the images on Christmas postcards, Santas was undeniably the favorite. There are easily 2,500 different full-length and head-and-shoulder Santa postcards crammed into more than 250 identifiable sets from about 50 different major pre-World War I publishers.
With such broad competition, its not surprising that firms experimented with Santa Claus novelties. What they accomplished gave collectors, then and now, exciting things to search for and to enjoy.
Most of the innovations and curiosities came from Europe. Leading publishers on that continent annually exported thousands of tons of postcards to this country before the imposition of restrictive tariff laws closed the gates around 1910.
The adaptation of the die-cut, hold-to-light process, a European invention, came early and was led by the German firms of D.R.G.M. (Gesetzli) and W. Hagelberg. Gesetzli converted many of its regular Santa designs, some drawn by the artist Mailick, to the hold-to-light form. A number of unknown publishers of greetings cards also joined the field, most of them using illustrations available from their other postcards.
Being Europeans, the Santas are usually dressed in brown, blue, purple, or some color other than red. The St. Nicholas or Father Christmas images are often seen without reindeer and sled, traveling through the snow on foot.
Hold-to-light Santas are totally delightful. Viewed against a strong light, the images of tree ornaments, doors, windows, and stars simply explode with color. These postcards are truly the crowning glory of any Santa Claus collection.
Another hold-to-light variety - the transparencies - were also popular novelties. Produced mainly by Woolstone Brothers, a large British firm, they almost always used the same designs seen on other postcards: a typical Christmas portrayal of children, presents, and tree; a warm indoor setting; or a nostalgic outdoor snow scene. Then when the light hits the card, who appears? None other than our friend, Kris Kringle! These, too, were heavily exported to this country.
Appliqués and Add-ons
Next in popularity among novelty Santas and first among the appliqué novelties are the silk Santas. S. Langsdorf of Germany and the American publisher P. Sander produced many of them. Never before or since has the Old Boy been dressed so well as in his woven silk clothing!
Not an appliqué item, but very unusual and rare, is a World War I silk embroidered postcard. Santa Claus and sleigh sail through the sky, bracketed by the flags of the United States and its Allies.
How about a Santa with real flowing whiskers and hair and a real felt hat? A card from the Barton Spooner Series 185 depicts a purple-robed Santa with lots of white whiskers and a black hat. And there are others from anonymous publishers.
Over the years, other objects found their way onto Santa Claus postcards: holly wreaths, pins, and even real coins, and objects made of wood, celluloid, plastic, and cloth. A fascinating series by United Art Publishing Company (New York City) offered tiny velvet knit stockings attached to the cards. Different colors of socks complemented the brown, red, gold, or green-suited Santas seen sitting at desks, leaving notes on childrens pillows, or carting huge bags of toys.
Among the most fascinating Santa Claus postcards are the mechanicals. There are pop-ups and stand-ups and Santas with moving parts.
The Worcester, Massachusetts-based Whitney Company, home of the frolicsome Nimble Nicks, produced a line of Christmas easel postcards just before and after World War I. Santa Claus was one of the subjects on these cards. Perforated for punching out rather than cutting, the cards could stand upright on a flat surface.
The Gibson Art Companys Movie Post Card set of Christmas subjects included at least two Santas - one with a wreath and one in a rocking chair. By folding over and inserting the tabs of the figure into the slips of the base, you get a rocking paper toy.
Several types of three-dimensional stand-up novelty Santa Claus postcards rank high on collectors want lists. Those by the United States Art Co. have a top layer which folds down, similar to the valentines of the 1900-1920 period. International Art Co., New York City, sold some postcards that were even more complicated - a folded box type which, when properly straightened out, becomes three or more different interacting scenes.
Santa Claus also appears on leather postcards, many of them made by the American firm, W.S. Heal. After World War II, many French-made 3-D postcards with scenes of Santa Claus in garish colors were imported into the United States. And Santa Claus is shown with a new 1956 Ford Thunderbird auto on a 78 r.p.m. advertising record postcard featuring singer Rosemary Clooney and the Mitch Miller Rochester.
These are just some of the many novelty Santa Claus postcards created in the first couple of decades of the 20th century and more recently. As the publics fascination with the jolly old elf persists, collectors will continue to have some wonderful and unique postcards to seek and enjoy.