Santa Claus. How do we describe Santa’s appearance? White beard. Red Suit. A bit on the portly side perhaps? An icon of Christmas, Santa has seen many different interpretations over the years, but today we all pretty much agree on his appearance here in America, and there is an urban legend that the modern appearance of Santa is thanks to Coca-Cola. While not entirely accurate, Coca-Cola, and Haddon Sundblom, the artist behind Coca-Cola’s Santa, did help to solidify this now standard appearance, which is pretty nice. But Sundblom was also responsible for some “naughty” images as well, and his final work combined the two.
There is a myth that Coca-Cola is responsible for creating the modern image of Santa, including that the reason his suit is red and white is because red and white are Coke’s colors. As amazing of a story as that would be, it is inaccurate. The basis for Santa’s appearance today mostly from Clement Clark Moore’s classic “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or as it is better known, “The Night Before Christmas” written and published in 1823.
Various red suited and rotund Santas began appearing in the later half of the 1800s and the first couple decades of the 1900s in advertising, magazine illustrations, and Christmas cards.
Concocted in 1886, Coca-Cola was originally billed as a health tonic for headaches, by the 1920s Coca-Cola had become a soda fountain staple, and often associated with summer. In 1922 Coca-Cola began using the slogan “Thirst knows no season.” This slogan was used the following year with their first depiction of Santa, wearing a white and red hat, which has later been described as a “mean” looking Santa.
A couple years later, in 1930, Coca-Cola used Santa again for an ad. Fred Mizen painted Santa surrounded by children at the “world’s largest soda fountain” located inside the Barr Co. Department Store in St. Louis. The ad boasted that Coca-Cola is so good that even the “busiest man in the world” pauses for a Coke.
The next year, Haddon Sundblom, who had been doing work for Coca-Cola since 1924, stepped in, painting a very jolly looking Santa holding a glass of Coke. The image would appear on billboards and in magazines, such as this scan from The Saturday Evening Post. Thus began an annual tradition that lasted until 1964.
Born June 22, 1899 in Muskegon, Michigan, Hadden Sundblom moved to Chicago at age 13 after the death of his mother. In the Windy City, Sundblom worked construction jobs, while taking night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and American Academy of Art. Following graduation he apprenticed at Charles Everett Johnson Studios in 1920. Five years later he, along with Howard Stevens and Edwin Henry, opened their own firm. Sundblom soon earned a reputation as a marvelous creator of classic American imagery, and painted various works for iconic brands, such as Aunt Jemima, Budweiser, Buick, Cream of Wheat, Ford, Goodyear, Maxwell House Coffee, Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Packard, Palmolive, Shlitz, Whitman chocolates, and he even created the Quaker Oats man, while also illustrating some of the fiction works found in The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping, and also painting pin-ups.
At his firm Sundblom would also pull together other amazing illustration and pin-up artists, who became known as “The Sundblom Circle.” This circle included the likes of Joyce Ballantyne (who would go on to create the iconic Coppertone Girl), Al Buell, Al Moor, Thorton Utz, and the most famous pin-up artist of all time, Gil Elgren. Sundblom’s unique, bubbly, and “sunlit glow” technique was emulated by all of those who studied under him, and was so revered that even Norman Rockwell longed to know Sundblom’s secret and how his “sunlit glow” was achieved.
As mentioned earlier, Sundblom had been doing work for Coca-Cola beginning in 1924, providing a variety of images, including attractive women, soda fountain scenes, and even a rather out of character dog sled scene. In the 1940s Sundblom was responsible for around half of Coca-Cola’s billboard art.
In addition to his typical Coca-Cola work, each year Sundblom was tasked with painting at least one new Santa for Coca-Cola, to be used in a variety of ways, including billboards, magazine ads, and point-of-purchase displays. His third Santa was also his first. Amid the Great Depression, Sundblom painted over his first Santa, adding a hat to his head, and a whip in his hand.
For the Coca-Cola Santa, Sundblom originally modeled him after his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman, however when Prentiss died, Sundblom began using himself as his own model. Santa was sometimes accompanied by children in the ads, and Sundblom employed two neighbor girls as models, Lani and Stacy Nason, however Sunbdlom altered one to appear as a boy, saying “I painted one of the sisters as a boy. I don’t know whether she liked being a boy or not. I never asked her.” Another addition to some of Sundblom’s Santa ads was a little black poodle, who was modeled after a dog belonging to a local florist. “Actually, it’s a grey poodle,” Sundblom admitted, “but I painted it black because it had a stand out. I fuzzed up its coat a bit because I thought it would be cuter if it were a bundle of fuzz.”
Sundblom’s Santa became iconic, a staple of Americana in the mid-20th century. Sundblom painted Santa inside the homes of children who favored giving Santa a Coke over milk, making toys, relaxing, and checking his list. He even changed with the times on occasion. As refrigerators became more common, Santa appeared in front of a one in 1937, the iconic Coca-Cola bottle in his hand switched from the embossed style to the ACL (Applied Color Lettering) style in 1958, and Santa played with a toy helicopter in 1962, something that didn’t even exist when Sundblom started painting Santa for Coca-Cola.
As depicted in Mad Men, illustration art was sadly on the outs by the mid-1960s, as ad agencies began favoring photography over illustrations. In 1964 Sundblom painted his last Coca-Cola Santa, the above painting of Santa with the children and black poodle.
However even after Sundblom departed, his Santas continued to appear in Coca-Cola adverts, altered sometimes to reflect the current look of Coca-Cola, as the two pieces from my own collection showcase.
The above piece features Santa holding an embossed bottle, and is dated 1954. When Coca-Cola re-used the image between 1976 and 1977 for their “Coke Adds Life” campaign they altered the bottle for the script to be white as they now used applied color lettering.
Sunbdlom’s final work combined the two things he was well known for, Santa and pin-ups. It was the cover of the 1972 Christmas issue of Playboy, complete with a cheeky nod to Coca-Cola.
The inside read:
At year’s end, we all become more conscious than usual of where we’ve been and where we seem to be headed. The female Santa on our cover – like a ghost of Christmas past – will stir memories in the heads of those who recall those Coke ads of several decades ago. These images, which became familiar around the world, were revived expressly for Playboy by the artists who originally created them – Chicago painter Haddon Sundblom, who has shaped our visual consciousness in more ways than one: He also designed the Quaker Oats man.
I find it a bit sad that Playboy failed to mention Sundblom’s contribution to the pin-up world, and how this piece was a marriage of the two. Sunblom passed away a couple years later on March 10, 1976.
Where are these iconic Coca-Cola paintings today? They reside in the Coca-Cola archives, with some on display at World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Which I do plan to visit one of these days!
While Sundblom did not fully create the iconic image of Santa Claus, he certainly helped solidify it in the American consciousness with thanks to the popularity of Coca-Cola. Additionally Sundblom’s Santa forever linked Christmas and Coke, so much so that Pepsi created an ad with Santa on vacation indulging in a Pepsi.
Disclaimer: I am not associated with the Coca-Cola Company in any way. This is not a sponsored post. I wrote this because I think it is a unique piece of history. All images of the Coca-Cola Santa are property of Coca-Cola.