By CONNIE ZEIGLER
Famous illustrator Thomas Nast is credited with popularizing the idea of children sending letters to Santa Claus. In 1871, he published in Harper’s Weekly an illustration of the jolly elf sorting letters into piles sent by “Good Children’s Parents,” and “Naughty Children’s Parents,” according to Smithsonian magazine.
The children of Indianapolis wrote letters to Santa, too, of course. In 1897, The Indianapolis News, in an effort to save Santa Claus some time, started publishing a few of these hopeful kid missives. That year, Clara Steinbauer, who lived at 1952 S. East St., asked for a pair of skates, some candy and nuts. Edgar and Daisy of 729 S. West St. wrote, “Dire Santy Close[,] bring Daisy a doll and bugay and a set of dishes and a little knife and fork.” For Edgar, “a little Washe and chane [watch and chain?] and a little Drum and a tool Box and a knife and fork . . . and some cars and some candy and nuts.”
Leo Burton, who lived at 221 Hadley Ave., asked that year for a new soldier suit and a pair of skates. In return, Leo promised to serve “Santie” a warm supper. Ina Dyness from 1226 Olive St. had a more extensive list. She wanted “a doll bed and a piano and a black board[,] a Christmas tree and some candy and nuts, a little table and a rocking chair.”
In 1903, The Star published letters to Santa that were from boys and girls who were sending money to the newspaper’s Santa Claus Club to help Santa purchase gifts for their less fortunate neighbors. Harold and Virginia Helfenberger wrote: “Dear Santa, you are always so good to us on Christmas we send you a dollar to help make some poor children happy.” Ruth Hale was 11 and had three sisters and a brother, but she also was sending Santa “a small sum to help make some poor children happy.” Being not only a very good girl, but also a very smart one, Ruth reminded Santa not to forget to stop at her house. “I want a new dress and two pair of stockings, a doll head and two pairs of arms and Do Not forget my sisters and brother,” she added to the letter.
Frank Phebur had the Christmas spirit even though he didn’t have much to give. “Dear Santa Claus,” he wrote, “I will send you 6 cents to get me a wagon so I can get my dear Old mother, 52 years old, some wood, for we are very poor and I wish you to give me some candy, so don’t forget me I am as poor as any of the peoples are.”
In 1911, U. S. Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock made it official. Yes, there really is a Santa Claus and yes you can write him a letter, Hitchcock declared. Letters addressed to Santa shouldn’t be sent to the dead letter office, according to the “bachelor postmaster,” as he was called in The Star. He proposed to deliver them to benevolent institutions and charitable people “who make a business of seeing that Santa Claus does come to their town and does come down the chimneys and fill the stockings at the midnight hour.”
In 1917, the U.S. entered World War I. Although it might seem that children have little awareness of events outside of their immediate experience, several letters to Santa published that year showed that children here knew that the war was a heavy burden. One little girl wrote “Mother told us that we must not ask for very much as the world is so full of sorrow and suffering on account of the war and there will be lots of children that you won’t get to visit this year. We would like to have a doll apiece if you have them without neglecting other children. Bring us whatever you have to spare and we will be thankful,” she promised.
“We have not saw you for a long time” one of the 200 children living at the Indianapolis Orphan’s Asylum wrote in a letter to Santa in 1919. “Will you bring me a box of ribbons, and a sleepy eye doll with curly hair with a ribbon on it?” Luckily her letter was intercepted and published in The Star to raise awareness of the plight of all the parentless children at the asylum. Miss Helen Boyd, chairman of the Christmas Committee, was seeking charitable souls willing to make sure that at least some of these orphan’s Christmas wishes could come true. Hopefully a curly-haired doll was under the tree that year.
Children’s letters to Santa show us that they are capable of great hope, sometimes in the midst of great despair.
In the destitute years of the Great Depression, the affluent ones after World War II, during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, in good times and bad, children wrote their letters to Santa Claus, whether they hadn’t received a gift at all the previous year, or they’d gotten everything they’d wanted.
For decades stretching into centuries, Indianapolis children shared a common hope with children around the nation: that at least this one time a year, they could ask this one special person for their hearts’ desires – and they just might get it.
Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.