Naughty & Nice: Ode to Haddon Sundblom, the Man Behind Pin-Ups & Coca-Cola’s Santa

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 comes from 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, which included fur as part of his suit, red nose and cheeks, white beard, and his “bowl full of jelly” tummy.

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.

Collage of various Santa illustrations of him wearing red from the 1800s and 1900s

Image Source: Collage made by me using images from St. Nicholas Center

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.

Santa wearing a red hat with white fir trim emerges from a holly wreath holding a sign that reads "Thirst knows no season Drink Coca-Cola."

Image Source

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.

Ad featuring Santa surrounded by children, drinking a class of Coke inside a soda fountain at a crowded department store. Text reads "It had to be good to get where it is. World's largest soda fountain in the great department store of Famous-Barr Co., St. Louis where busy Christmas shoppers pause and refresh themselves with ice cold Coca-Cola. The Busiest Man in the World comes up smiling after...the pause that refreshes."

Image Source

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.

A jolly looking Santa in a red suit holds up a glass of Coke. His trademark hat is tucked in his belt. Text reads "My hat's off to the pause that refreshes."

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 Elvgren. 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.

A blonde pinup in a yellow dress adjusts her garter near a lake as a dog looks on.

A redheaded pin-up sits on a fence holding her skirt in place as the wind blows.

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.

Santa in his red suit, with his cap on his head, holds a glass of Coke in one hand and a whip in the other.

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.”

Santa sits with a little girl on his lap, and a Coke in his hand. In front of him a little boy looks at a black poodle who sits on his hind legs.

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.

A framed Coca-Cola advertisement featuring Santa reading "Good taste for all" hangs on our kitchen wall.

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.

A cardboard advertisement of Santa next to a sign that reads "Coke adds life to Holiday Fun"

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.

Playboy cover. A blonde female wears a red and white Santa hat on her head and is taking off the classic red coat to reveal nothing underneath. A red circle to the right reads "Enjoy Our Gala Christmas Issue" with the word "Gala" in the Coca-Cola script.

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.

Charles, Barbara Fahs, and J.R. Taylor. Dream of Santa: Haddon Sundblom’s Advertising Paintings for Christmas, 1931-1964. New York: Random house. 1992. Print.
Five Things You Never Knew About Santa Claus and Coca-Cola.” The Coca-Cola Company. Accessed 27 October 2020.
Haddon Sundblom: Santa Paintings.” Oglethorpe University of Art.” Accessed 27 October 2020.
Martignette, Charles G. and Meisel, Louis K. The Great American Pin-Up. Hong Kong: Taschen, 2006. Print.
Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus.” St. Nicholas Center. Accessed 27 October 2020.

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.

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