A whimsical look at the man with the toys

WAY BACK WHEN

Postcard collector's new book reveals the long history of old St. Nick

December 11, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For postcard collector Robert C. Hoffman, it's Christmas year-round. When he says, "I love all visual images of Santa," he isn't kidding.

Hoffman, 58, a Pittsford, N.Y., native and an antiques dealer, collects and sells vintage postcards, trading cards, railroad and steamship travel posters and other paper ephemera.

But it's Santa Claus that drives his collecting instincts.

"Of course, my love of Santa began in my childhood but I didn't seriously start collecting him until I was 25. It's all such a joy and just takes hold of your life."

He estimates that his Santa items, which fill the basement of his home and a nearby small building, number somewhere in the 20,000 range.

"Well, the whole basement was lost to the collection but my wife is pretty good about it. I could have the worse day but after going to the basement and looking at the collection, I come back upstairs smiling."

His book, Postcards from Santa Claus: Sights and Sentiments from the Last Century, was recently published by Square One Publishers.

The book, in which about 150 of Hoffman's postcards are reproduced, provides a whimsical look at the jolly fat man with red cheeks, blazing brier pipe and bulging sack of toys.

Europeans have loved St. Nicholas since the sixth century despite his judgmental approach to gift-giving, he writes.

"Most often pictured as a thin man with a white beard, and carrying a large book where sins and wrongs were recorded, Nicholas sometimes carried a whip or rod as well as goodies in a sack."

It was after the Protestant Reformation and St. Nicholas' identification with the Roman Catholic Church that altered his role.

"Several nations developed new, secular gift-giving figures such as Pere Noel of France, Weichnachtsmann of Germany, Jultomen of Scandanavia, and Father Christmas of England," observes Hoffman.

Dutch settlers arriving in America brought their Sinter Klaas, which eventually became Santa Claus, he says

However, Santa Claus as we presently think of him is pretty much a creation of 19th-century artists and lithographers who used him in postcards, trading cards, magazines, calendars, children's books and newspaper ads.

Hoffman also credits the popular image of Santa to Thomas Nast, the political artist who between 1882 and 1886 produced an annual Christmas drawing for Harpers Weekly showing him spreading holiday cheer.

"Nast drew a never before-seen figure called Santa Claus - a warm and endearing grandfatherly gent. ... It was the first drawing of this joyful little man, and it didn't take long for him to become our friend," Hoffman writes.

In his book, Hoffman has also reproduced the handwritten messages on the reverse side of the cards.

A particularly interesting one from 1908 shows Santa fashioning toys in his workshop, while an army of elves stream from the Baltimore News building mailing letters.

Children wrote to the newspaper's children's editor who in return sent this card back with a handwritten note that was signed by the great man from the North Pole.

The one in Hoffman's book was addressed to Margaret Rose Heister, York Road, Govans, Md.

"Dear Little Friend," Santa wrote. "Your very nice letter has reached me through the Children's Editor of the Baltimore News. I have entered in my Big Book a list of the things you wish. Be good and I will do my best to leave something for you on Christmas. With much Love, Santa Claus."

"I found that card in Rochester years ago and have never seen another," Hoffman said.

A World War I card shows Santa dressed as a doughboy. His sack is filled with soldiers rather than toys.

He is carrying a sword and is in hot pursuit of a German soldier: "Old Saint Nick is here with greetings to you. While we're raising Nick with the Huns," reads the message.

During World War II, Santa travels through a winter dawn with a sleigh laden with war bonds.

Hoffman writes that while Santa continued to endorse products during the war years, many luxury items such as vacations, autos and jewelry were avoided because of rationing.

"Instead, he encouraged the sale of smaller-ticket items, including wristwatches, radios, hats, cigarettes and liquor," Hoffman said.

One of Hoffman's Christmas pastimes is visiting the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y., one of the nation's most famous children's museums.

"They have an original Thomas Nast oil painting of Santa, and I look forward each year to visiting the museum and seeing it. I could look at it for hours," Hoffman said.

A grandfather of two, he decorates his home with about a dozen vintage Santa posters from his collection.

"Christmas is a lot of fun around here," he said.

This is the last Way Back When column. If you'd like to revisit some of the previous columns, they are available on The Sun's Web site at www.baltimoresun.com/rasmussen.

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