He’s the legendary big guy with a red suit and white beard. But 100 years ago, you might not even recognize Santa Claus.
Over time there have been many interpretations of Santa’s look – and vintage postcards from the early 20th century prove that he’s had more makeovers than a movie star.
At the Newberry Library, a rare collection tracks Santa’s evolution.
“We collect rare books, manuscripts, postcards and other kinds of material for the library related to American history and culture,” said Will Hansen, curator of Americana at the Newberry Library.
And Santa Claus is very much an American icon.
“The Newberry has one of the largest institutional postcard collections in the world. These postcards — postcards related to Santa and Christmas — are from the collection of a man named Brian Bossier, which is a fine collection of postcards, early postcards in particular from around the 1890s to 1920s,” said Hansen.
The library is digitizing hundreds of postcard images of Santa Claus – including some truly strange ones.
“This collection is great for looking at the evolution of Santa Claus in American culture but also global culture. The postcards are mostly European and American — they’re not exclusively American,” he said.
There are many that show Santa Claus not in the typical way that we think of him now with a red suit, black belt and boots.
Santa’s depiction goes back to the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” or as it was first called in the 1820s, “A Visit from St. Nicolas,” Hansen said.
“[The poem] first talks about him in a sleigh and with the reindeer but really there’s a variety of ways for thinking of how he looks,” Hansen said. “It’s not always a red coat. He wears purple, he wears green, he wears blue. Sometimes he’s depicted as more elf like himself.”
Santa Claus can also be slightly scary. Or bald. Or controversial – like in the Dutch tradition of giving St. Nicholas a servant called “Black Pete.” Santa is almost always depicted on the move – though he sometimes has questionable driving skills.
“This collection has a really great example of different kinds of Santas and different transportation for Santa in particular. There seems to have been a real vogue for showing Santa in new transportation modes in the early 20th century,” Hansen said. “So there aren’t a lot in this collection that show him with the typical sleigh and reindeer. There are a couple that show him with the sleigh being pulled by elves. There are some that show him in an early airplane – aviation was so new in the early 20th century, in the 1900s and 1910s, so there was a lot of popularity around that. There’s one that show him in a zeppelin, throwing presents out of that. There are some that show him in cars. There’s even one on a motorbike which was also a new technology in the early 20th century.”
For a full view of the digital collection, visit the Newberry Library’s online archive.