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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.

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