Posted by: Karlee A. Turner | December 7, 2010

An Old Fashioned Christmas during the 1850’s

Americans’ newfound awe and delight with Santa Claus and Christmas trees was spurred on by newspapers and periodicals like the New York Tribune and Godey’s Lady’s Book. Some 1850 Red Letter years in America’s battle for Christmas:

1850   Godey’s publishes an illustration of Britain’s royal family’s Christmas tree

1851   The first tree concession is set up in New York city, markets in Philadelphia soon followed suit; a family in Vicksburg, PA set up a Christmas tree in their home; Reverend Henry Schwan puts up an evergreen tree in his church (but he nearly lost his job because of it)

1852   Gleason’s Pictorial noted, ‘already is the annual Christmas Tree established as one of the household gods of New England and a large portion of the States.’

1855    On Christmas Eve, Edward S. Johnson of Albany, New York reported that the streets are ‘alive with people…. Thousands are out buying Christmas presents.’ In St. Louis another gentleman noted the stores were ‘crowded with people buying Christmas things….The toys and funny goods houses particularly are doing a big business.’

1856   The Christmas tree makes its first appearance in the White House under President Franklin Pierce.

1858   Various reports giving evidence that the Christmas holiday is becoming more commercialized: ‘Shops are full of business, streets are thronged; every other pedestrian carries a parcel or two, or escorts one or more eager, expentant children with big eyes fixed on the gorgeous succession of shop windows.’

1859   A Christmas tree is erected in Seminary Chapel of New York’s Sabbath schools

Clement C. Moore

Clement C. Moore (pictured above) was the first person to transform a Dutch workman he had known as a child into the beloved “jolly old elf” Santa Claus, when in wrote A Visit from Saint Nicholas in 1822; although it was not published as an illustrated poem until 1844.

However, by the 1860’s another man can be credited with transforming Christmas and Santa Claus by making over Moore’s jolly old elf of 1822. That man was Thomas Nast (pictured above), born in Germany in 1841. Young Thomas and his mother emigrated to the United States in 1846, his father followed in 1850. Thomas attended the National Academy of Design before securing a job as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1856. Four years later, after having been laid off by Leslie’s, he was hired by rival newspaper Harper’s Weekly.

Nast remained in Harper’s employ for a year, resigned so he could travel through Europe, then rejoined Harper’s staff in 1862, where he remained for the next twenty-four years. It was during his tenure at Harper’s that Nast’s Santa Claus made his debut. Nast’s first Santa was drawn in 1862; however, that drawing of Santa was by no means the last. Over the next twenty-two years, Nast drew Santa Claus in various poses and situations. In 1866 Nast claimed the North Pole as Santa’s home, but sadly by 1886 Santa made his last appearence on the pages of Harper’s Weekly. Below is the cover page of Harper’s Weekly from 1st January 1863.

 The above issue is Thoma Nast’s “first” Santa Claus illustration, which debut at Harper’s Weekly cover in January 1863. The illustration below also appeared in Harper’s January 1863 issue, but as the centerfold.

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