Haddon Sundblom was a prominent Chicago illustrator who produced many well-known images in the history of advertising, including the Quaker Oats Man, Aunt Jemima, and Santa Claus. He also painted his share of pin-up girls, many made famous by Coca-Cola. Some of his major advertising accounts included Cream of Wheat, Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Palmolive, Ford, and the U.S. Marine Corps. He illustrated fiction for the The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan,
and Good Housekeeping
Born in Michigan, Sundblom moved to Chicago at the age of thirteen. Working construction jobs during the day, he took night classes in illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art. Soon after, he began as an apprentice at one of Chicago’s largest illustration firms—the Charles Everett Johnson Studios. By 1925, Sundblom and two colleagues had opened their own firm.
The Coca-Cola Company was one of the firm’s earliest clients; Sundblom created more art for Coca-Cola than any other single artist. From 1931 to 1964, he produced at least one image of Santa Claus annually for Coca-Cola. His work was reproduced on calendars, billboards, posters, cut-outs, and in magazines, ensuring the widespread popularity of his particular conception of Santa, Sundblom’s original model was a neighbor and retired salesman, Lou Prentice. After Prentice died in the 1950’s, Sundblom used himself as a model.
The Santa Claus that is an established part of our Christmas tradition was an invention of Victorian America. The nineteenth-century mass media gave this Santa credibility by fashioning him as part of an ancient folk tradition—a mythical hero unchanged by consumer culture.
Yet Santa has always been commercial. Santa’s earliest likenesses were created by mass media artists. Initially, these artists produced many different Santas—authoritarian ones, scary ones, and kind ones. Famous illustrators such as Thomas Nast, J. C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell standardized a more consistent image of Santa in the popular press.
These precedents influenced the Santa that Haddon Sundblom created for Coca-Cola in 1931. The company hired Sundblom to paint a figure that would encourage Americans to drink Coke in the winter months. (Until 1931, Coke was considered a summer beverage.) Sundblom produced at least one Santa annually for Coca-Cola through 1964.
Conceived during the Great Depression, Sundblom’s merry, portly Santa changed very little over the years. Poised with a Coke bottle in one hand and a quill pen or handcrafted toy in the other, he seems to strike a reassuring balance between commercial interests and time-honored traditions. Reproduced by the millions, Sundblom’s Santa boosted winter sales and became a holiday archetype that endures in television, films, and department stores today.
The winter celebration that we know as Christmas evolved out of the ancient Roman pagan festival Saturnalia. Saturnalia celebrated the winter solstice and the end of the harvest, a time of jubilation for agricultural workers. In the fourth century, the Church decided to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25. This date was not chosen based on historical or biblical evidence; it was chosen because it coincided with the long-established holiday of Saturnalia.
Until the nineteenth century, the Christmas season in Europe and North America mimicked Saturnalia. Celebrations were marked by behavior that many would find offensive today: excessive displays of public drinking, eating, gambling, lewdness, mocking of authority, and aggressive begging. This unruly behavior led the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations for a period of time.
In the nineteenth century, Christmas was transformed from a pagan free-for-all to a quiet domestic ritual centered on children and gift-giving. In Europe, a variety of descendants of St. Nicholas presided over the Christmas season. In the United States, the newly invented Santa Claus figured prominently in this ritual. All told, the Victorians created a much more manageable, predictable holiday that endures with us today.