Menus Subscribe Search

When Santa Traded His Sleigh for an Automobile

• December 19, 2012 • 9:43 AM

The American Santa of the end of the 19th century was a lot fatter and in a car—much like the average American a century later.

Santa’s automobile filled with presents (December 8, 1898, Altoona Mirror)

The history of Santa Claus in the United States is a messy one, complete with disagreements between historians over something as simple as the author of the poem “The Night Before Christmas.” But one thing we do know is that this early 19th century poem was the first to put Saint Nicholas in a sleigh with flying reindeer. In the 21st century we often forget that in the original poem, jolly old Saint Nick was depicted as an elf with miniature reindeer:

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

But at the end of the 19th century not only was Santa Claus full-sized, some people felt he needed an upgrade in his mode of transportation.

In 1898 there were few symbols of modernity more powerful than the new-fangled horseless carriage. The December 8, 1898, edition of the Altoona Mirror in Altoona, Pennsylvania contained a rather bizarre-looking ad from William F. Gable and Company‘s department store, which not only had an automobile, but a most eccentric driver—Santa Claus himself. In the ad we see Santa gesturing to his penned-up reindeer, perhaps mocking them for being such a terribly old fashioned way to get around. From the 1898 William F Gable and Company ad:

As far advanced as is the Automobile over the old fashioned Reindeer as a means of locomotion, so far is this store’s method of gathering and pricing the goods that ought to be in a modern, progressive store advanced over those used by the majority of stores of the present day.

The next year the December 21 Akron Tribune in Ohio included an illustration of a “Twentieth Century Santa Claus” in its Holiday Supplement.

Santa updated for the 20th century (December 21, 1899, Akron Tribune)

The image of Santa driving around in an automobile never really took off, however, with Americans preferring the idea of the jolly bearded man tending to his reindeer and delivering presents to the children of the world in his magical flying sleigh.

But given this decade’s renewed excitement about space travel with the likes of NASA’s Curiosity Rover, Elon Musk’s dreams for SpaceX on Mars, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, don’t be surprised if we see Santa in a lot more spaceships in the years to come.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.