Photos with Santa from decades ago don’t really look all that different

Vintage pictures with Santa

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The official pictures of kids with Santa — once called ‘sitting on Santa’s lap’ — has been around for generations. Here’s a look back at this Christmas ritual!

Walter and Santa Claus in NYC (1958)

With Santa at Macy’s at Herald Square, New York City

1958-With Santa at Macys at Herald Square NYC

Photo thanks to Walter

Santa in 1979 or so


Photo courtesy Jelene Morris

The long lost story of James Edgar — The man who was truly Santa Claus (1972)

By Frederick John – Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) December 24, 1972

The warmth of Christmas should have filled the air. The snow-drifted down from the heavens, covering the city with a gentle blanket of white. Already, the twinkling Christmas lights had started to appear in some windows.

The stores were gaily decorated, and the church choirs were preparing their most beautiful hymns. The great day was a few weeks away.

But the Christmas mood had been replaced by the nagging torment of poverty. The happy smiles of anticipation on the faces of children were few and far between.

Santa Claus on a home set in 1907

The year was 1920. The place was Brockton, Mass., an industrial city where too many factories had closed down.

No person was more aware of the poverty that existed in Brockton than Charles F. Brooks, the city’s truant officer. He had discovered that a lack of shoes was keeping hundreds of youngsters home from school.

Money was so tight in Brockton that year, parents could not afford to buy their children new shoes, or repair the old ones. In many families, there was only one old pair of shoes for several youngsters, and the children took turns wearing them to school. The absentee rate was fantastic.

Thus it was that Charles Brooks trudged through the snow to Edgar’s, the town’s largest department store, that day in December years ago. He had an appointment with William L. Wright, the store’s manager.

“What can I do to help?” asked Wright after Brooks had told his story. 

Responded the truant officer: “Just do what the late James Edgar would have done.” He was referring to the store’s founder, who had died a decade earlier.

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Brooks’ words had hit home. Wright paused and reflected for a moment. Then he said: “Jim Edgar would have helped those youngsters, — especially at this time of year. Christmas was an important part of his life. I’m going to do exactly what Jim would do, if he were alive today.”‘

James Edgar was the very first department store Santa Claus

Everybody knows that the Christmas season is the biggest money-making time of the year in the department store business. But at Edgar’s in 1920, they closed down the top floor of the three-story store at the height of the Christmas season. The clerks and counters and merchandise were all moved out.

A $3,000 shoe repairing machine was purchased, and bundles of heels and soles, and leather findings were delivered to the top floor. A half dozen cobblers, each paid a weekly salary of $40, a healthy sum in those days, were hired. In short order, the James Edgar Shoe shop was ready for business. 

Children lined up outside the department store and waited patiently to get upstairs to have their shoes repaired. The service was free. In addition, a huge hogshead known as ‘The Edgar Barrel’ was placed inside the front entrance.

Local citizens who were blessed with steady employment that year were urged to deposit spare shoes their own children had outgrown. Hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes were left there, and by Christmas that year, they were being worn by children who needed them.

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It has been estimated that more than 1,000 pairs of shoes were repaired on the top floor of the department store by Christmas.

By spring, when the James Edgar Shoe shop finally closed down, more than 5,000 pairs of shoes, all of them repaired free of charge, were walking the streets of the industrial city.

Department store president William Wright had kept his pledge. It had cost a small fortune to do it. But he had done exactly what James Edgar would have done.

James Edgar, a native of Scotland who came to the United States when he was only a child, is the man who made American children more aware of Santa Claus than they had ever been before. Yet, for some unknown reason, the story of this man has been lost amid the hustle and bustle of our modern American Christmas season.

James Edgar was a tall, well-stuffed soul with a ruddy complexion, and a loud and hearty laugh. He had a rich, warm voice. And a snowy white beard.

James Edgar was the very first department store Santa Claus. He was a natural.

Now this claim to fame in itself might be considered crass commercialism were it not for the very nature of the man. He loved children. He would stand on the roof of his department store and shower pennies down on them on Saturday mornings. 

On the Fourth of July, he hired all the trolley cars available so he could take every youngster in Brockton on a picnic in the neighboring community of Avon. It has been estimated that some years he hired as many as 30 trolley cars for the annual outings.

If he heard of a child who was seriously ill, the best medical care available was dispatched immediately to the youngster’s home. The donor was always anonymous.

If there was a youngster who needed to earn extra money to help out at home, Edgar was quick to hire him, even if there was no real need for a new employee.

“Times were hard, and I had to find work even though I was only a boy,” recalled famed artist John Castano, who is now approaching eighty.

”James Edgar hired me on the spot. When he learned I wanted to be an artist, he put me to work painting scenery for the store windows. That was the first time I ever painted anything for money, it was the start of my career as a painter.” 

Edgar opened The Boston Store in Brockton in 1878. Later, the establishment became known as Edgar’s. As stated, he loved children, and it was for this reason that he did. in time, become Santa Claus for them. He was married and had a daughter. Perhaps, his love for her inspired the great love he had for all children.

The Boston Store in Brockton Mass - James Edgar Santa Claus

He was a showman of sorts, and he loved to dress up in costumes to delight his children at the annual Fourth of July picnics.

One year, he came dressed up as Uncle Sam. Another time, he appeared as George Washington. He also appeared as an Army general, in an Indian costume, and in a Scottish outfit complete with kilts.

Naturally, he appeared in a clown’s costume. In fact, his appearance as a clown brought such a great response he decided to wear the costume in his store the following Christmas. Every day, he wandered through the store dressed as the clown, and selected the girl with the prettiest ribbon in her hair. She received a Christmas doll.

This went on for three or four years. Then, in 1890, Edgar decided to try a new costume at Christmas. He rode up to Boston on the train, and had a Santa costume tailored at a costume shop there. The following week the roly-poly gentleman made his first appearance in a department store. The rest is history.

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“I can still remember — seeing Santa Claus for the first time,” declared Coward Pearson, who was there that first day. “‘As long as I live, and I’ve lived quite a few years. I’ll never forget that experience.”

Pearson, who is now in his nineties, resides on Cape Cod now. But he still has warm memories of James Edgar, and that day his parents brought him to the department store to purchase a gift for an aunt.

James Edgar parade for kids - 4th of July

“Nowadays, Santa Claus is everywhere,” said’ Mr. Pearson. “Back in 1890, we saw drawings of him in the newspapers and magazines. But you never thought you’d ever have a chance to see him in person, unless you sat up all night on Christmas Eve beside the fireplace at home.

“You just can’t imagine what it was like. My parents had taken me over to the Boston store on Main St. I remember walking down an aisle and, all of a sudden, right in front of me I saw Santa Claus, I couldn’t believe my eyes. And them Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”

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The following day, the department. store was crowded with children. And their parents too. They had never enjoyed the pleasure of a face-to-face encounter with the merry old soul either. A week after Santa made his debut, there were long lines outside the store every day after school got out. All the kids in town wanted to meet the great man.

Originally, Edgar planned to appear for only a couple of hours each day in the Santa costume. This was supposed to be during the late afternoon at the end of the school day. But his idea proved to be so popular he had to send up to Boston for a second Santa outfit. This costume was worn by “Jim Grant, a big floorwalker.”

Now the children were arriving by train from Boston and other surrounding Bay State communities. Some even came from Providence, Rhode island. A few sophisticated New York youngsters showed up. Just about every child who could persuade mom and dad to make the trip to Brockton visited the department store that Christmas.

During the year that followed, word of Edgar’s great success spread across the nation.

Thus it was that, in 1891, Santa made his first appearance at a number of major stores. By the turn of the century, he had a throne in department stores in just about every city of any size in the nation.

Nowadays, there are elaborate parades heralding Santa’s arrival in important cities. In smaller communities, he arrives at shopping plazas in a helicopter.

Rare indeed is the American city, town, village, or hamlet that does not have its own store Santa.

Santa says give American toys to kids for Christmas (1953)

Nov 23, 1953 - Santa says give American toys to kids for Christmas

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Twenty years on Santa’s knee

From LIFE – Dec 15, 1972

For most kids, having a birthday all near Christmas is considered a bad break. But Stephanie Yeno of Van Nuys, California, an only child whose birthday is Dec. 23, and her mother. Mrs. Roxie Yeno, managed to turn the coincidence to special use.

Each year, Stephanie’s birthday picture was taken with one or another department store Santa, providing a year-by-year picture record.

This year, at age 21, Stephanie will sit on Santa’s knee for the last time. She got married in November, and presumably the next time she goes through the line, it will be with her own child.

18 years of Christmas pictures with Santa - From LIFE Dec 15, 1972 (2)

18 years of Christmas pictures with Santa - From LIFE Dec 15, 1972 (1)

Santa, 1940s-style

Santa in San Francisco


Santa, 1970s-style

Your very thrilled editor here — who is also the daughter of the boy in the photo above — around 1974.

Santa in the 1970s

Screaming toddler with Santa around 1974 – Kodak ad

Screaming toddler with Santa around 1974 - Kodak ad

12 vintage Coca-Cola Christmas ads, starring Santa Claus (1931-1963)

Screaming with Santa in seventy-two

The story of this photo from Michael Daddino:

Mom: That’s adorable. Every year there was a baby crying in the Santa picture. Tommy was old enough to enjoy it. Bobby seems a bit serious — I guess he was thinking about all the bad things he did. And you HATED HIM.

Look at how upset you were! It used to be a big thing for me — I had to wait for Tommy to come from school, and Bobby to come home from nursery school, and you to wake up from your afternoon nap, then dress you all up, then put you all the car, and then drive to Roosevelt Field Mall, wait on a line, then get the picture taken.

Me: Only to…

Mom: To have it for posterity, like right now, when I can finally laugh at it.

1972 mall Santa Claus photo

John & Santa – looking very awesomely ’80s


Photo thanks to Heather Hopkins

Denise and Diane sit on Santa’s lap

Denise and Diane sit on Santa's lap

Picture thanks to Melissa Doroquez

Awkward Santa photo

Says photo contributor Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones: “Awkward Family Photo — Me on Random Santa’s lap at age 15.

“It was 1979 we had a family store called Western Auto in the Amish country of Southern Maryland. We decided to have a Santa photo opportunity booth set up next to the Freezers — I got to help wrangle kids & take Polaroids, but of course, I had to have my pic taken first.”

Awkward Family Photo-santa-1979-1980

Sisterly Santa fans (1964)

Sisters Nina and Shelly Hartman on Santa’s lap, 1964 — Bloomington, Ilinois

Heat Miser & Snow Miser: The Year Without a Santa Claus - See the song and get the lyrics! (1974)

Christmas 1964 with Santa

Photo thanks to rochelle hartman

A big smile for Mr Claus

Says photo contributor Tiffanie Lee: “The only memory I really have of this occasion is walking through the mall parking lot with my mom and brother whilst they passed my picture back and forth in glee because I actually smiled big.”


Brothers love that Santa!

Says Joe: “Jonathan has a serious phobia of Santa. I’ve got another one of him screaming on Santa’s lap as well.”

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Jonathan has a serious phobia of Santa

Santa pic thanks to Joe Stump

Santa & Jim (1956)

“Department Store Photo taken when I was 6 years old.”

Santa and Jim the Photographer December 1956

Picture thanks to Jim, the Photographer

Vintage Santa Claus at Macy’s (1942)

“New York, New York. R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas. Children line up to talk with Santa Claus.

“They are two Santas, concealed from one another by a labyrinth to prevent disillusionment of the children. Each child is presented with candy and tells Santa his or her desires.”

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress

Vintage Santa Claus at Macy's (1942)

Kids seeing old Santa Claus at Macy's (1942)

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. I love this article!! The cute kids either happily or mortified sitting in Santa’s lap. I really enjoyed the compilation of Stephanie’s photos and seeing her birthday/Santa pictures each year.

    My kids always clammed up when Santa asked what they wanted. Then later they worried the dickens out of me because they just knew Santa wouldn’t bring them anything since they had been so shy.

    I remember my parents taking me to a local Sears store to see Santa. I was around 5 years old and to get to Santa (who was in an igloo type structure), the kids had to crawl through a tunnel made to look like ice. I have always had an issue with claustrophobia so by the time I had my turn with Santa, I was a nervous wreck. Still, I would have done anything to tell Santa what I wished for on Christmas morning.

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