by Cynthia Close
Santa’s Portrait (above), a color illustration by the noted German born American political cartoonist Thomas Nast, appeared in an 1881 edition of Harper’s Magazine. It is credited with being the first image to establish all the visual elements we associate with America’s version of Santa Claus we recognize today. Except for the pipe-smoking, the smiling, bearded, ruddy cheeked, red suit wearing, portly old gent sporting a bundle of toys is pretty much the same figure appearing in the iconic Coca Cola ads that appear in the 1930s, some 50 years later. The depictions are so similar that some Americans think the Coca Cola Company actually invented Santa.
While the roots of the Santa story go back hundreds of years it is undeniable that the soft drink company’s advertising campaigns around the Christmas holidays embedded their image of Santa firmly in the nation’s imagination. The clever Coke advertisers hired American artist Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976) to create a Santa Claus who would appear as an actual person, not a myth, magician, or an impersonator wearing a fake beard and a padded suit. It was the 1930s, in the middle of the depression, and not a happy time for many people. For inspiration Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, commonly known as Twas the Night Before Christmas. To accomplish the desired level of realism, Sundblom hired his affable friend and neighbor Lou Prentiss to model. The original works were painted in oil, and then adapted for posters, billboards, and magazines. Through the years, Sundblom’s Christmas Santa ads for Coke incorporated subtle changes, but kept the robust, jolly figure essentially the same. Sundblom’s last ad for the company was painted in 1964.