How today’s Santa evolved from an ad man’s brush

Chicago Tribune

When most Americans think of Santa, a jovial old man who is quite a bit overweight and wears a red velvet suit with white fur trim comes to mind. But Santa didn’t always look that way. He evolved over time, with the help of a Chicago artist named Haddon Sundblom.

Inspired by the works of popular American illustrators such as Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker, Sundblom painted a series of portraits of Santa between 1931 and 1964 for Coca-Cola advertisements that helped to shape the modern image of the jolly character known as Santa Claus.

For decades, the 35 paintings have been stored in the Coca-Cola archives in Atlanta, occasionally exhibited in museums around the world -- in Paris, Tokyo, Sydney and Toronto. This year, 18 of the paintings are on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.


“What most people don’t realize is that Santa’s origins were very commercial from the beginning. He was created by mass media artists and invented by Americans in the beginning of the 19th century,” said Anne Knutson, guest curator of the High Museum of Art. “The interesting thing is that he managed to stay above the commercial fray; even during wars and the Great Depression, he remained the same. And that was very comforting to Americans.”

In 1809, writer Washington Irving introduced Santa to Americans, producing a version of the Dutch gift-giving St. Nicholas legend. More than 70 years later, Nast, known as the father of American political cartooning, created the modern Santa first popularized in Harper’s Weekly.

Determined to make his Santa fully American, Nast got rid of Santa’s European attributes -- his slightly dangerous look -- and made him more jovial, dressed in his red suit with white trim and black leather belt. Nast also declared the North Pole Santa’s home.

About 100 years ago, advertisers began using Santa to sell everything from soap to sterling silver coffee spoons. And by the 1920s, Leyendecker and Rockwell codified Santa’s image with their illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post. But it was Sundblom’s image that showed up in almost every home in America -- in magazine ads promoting Coca-Cola as not only a summer refresher but a winter drink as well. The historic pictures are still used.

“Over three decades, his work was seen by just about every American ... ,” said Phil Mooney, archivist for Coca-Cola. “Thus, Sundblom is credited with establishing the modern image of Santa Claus, defining what he looks like for most of us when we think of Christmas.”

Through the exhibit, the evolutionary process is evident. The early paintings focus on the character of Santa Claus, with a ruddy complexion and a Coke bottle in one hand. Later, Sundblom adds other elements, such as a sack full of toys, a workshop with elves, children and pets.

Sundblom left his hometown of Muskegon, Mich., in 1899 and headed for Chicago. His mother had recently died, and he was only 13. He worked in construction for seven years before he became an illustrator. He died in 1976. In the 1920s, Chicago’s advertising community was the most vital in the nation. And Sundblom was in the midst of it. He painted for Cream of Wheat and Nabisco Shredded Wheat cereals, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Maxwell House coffee, Palmolive, Whitman chocolates and Goodyear tires, among other products.

But his biggest job was for Coca-Cola.

For a third of a century, his vision materialized on canvas. Disliking the cheap costumes and meager look common in department store and charity Santas during the Depression, he countered with an abundance of lavish fur and leather. While other Santas were skinny, he painted a waistline so ample that it required a belt and suspenders.


Dahleen Glanton is a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.