Early 20th century letters to Santa offer a sometimes grim glimpse of Christmas past | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Early 20th century letters to Santa offer a sometimes grim glimpse of Christmas past

The assistant postmaster of Chicago—and his helpers—connected thousands of children in need with charities.

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This doll demand for Santa was received by the Chicago Bureau of Charities in 1907.
  • This doll demand for Santa was received by the Chicago Bureau of Charities in 1907.

In December 1907, the U.S. Post Office gave John M. Hubbard, the assistant postmaster of Chicago, the job of reading the city's letters addressed to Santa Claus. Hubbard was to match children who appeared to be in need with charitable organizations and generous individuals. "I suppose because I'm a fat, good-natured fellow I get all the extra work," Hubbard joked with one reporter during his first week as Kris Kringle.

Hubbard would subsequently become known in the local and national press as the Official Santa Claus of Chicago. It was a tougher job than it might seem.

For decades, Chicago newspapers had printed letters to Santa. In 1891, the Chicago Herald claimed that Santa "needs an assistant in Chicago, and The Herald, which is an especial [sic] friend of his and has long been a close second to him in its love of children" would help get presents to children "overlooked by Santa Claus in the past." The newspaper warned that Saint Nick "never loses his temper excepting [sic] when a child begs him for extravagant things; then he leave that child's stocking empty." Predictably, the paper, which set up a Santa Claus fund, was overwhelmed with letters.

Other papers featured adorable letters sent in by stores that had promised to forward children's letters to the North Pole. "I will hang my stocking and bring mama some candy in her stocking and dont [sic] fill it up with potatoes," Edith R. Hanson ordered "Santa Clause" in 1893. But other letters show loss and deprivation-children coping with parents lost to institutionalization or death, children facing no Christmas due to severe poverty. In 1896, Mayor George Bell Swift released to the press letters from poor children who had written Santa, care of City Hall (which, presumably, had some clout with the North Pole). "My papa has not been working sence [sic] March and my mamma washes every day. This is the first little letter I ever wrote to Santa Claus and please dont [sic] forget us before Christmas and let us have one happy day," pleaded one fourth grader who lived in the basement of 631 S. Fairfield Avenue.

Starting in 1907 John M. Hubbard, the city's assistant postmaster, became known in the local and national press as the Official Santa Claus of Chicago.
  • Starting in 1907 John M. Hubbard, the city's assistant postmaster, became known in the local and national press as the Official Santa Claus of Chicago.

Before 1907, mail addressed to Santa with no real physical address were delivered to the dead-letter office in Washington, D.C., where they were subsequently destroyed. Under public pressure to save letters from children who were writing Santa Claus out of genuine need, Postmaster General George Lengerke von Meyer ordered that Santa Claus letters be turned over to local charities "to be used exclusively for philanthropic charities."

Aided by a team of volunteers (including his daughter and two granddaughters), Hubbard processed 3,315 letters in Chicago. Of these, 1,015 were marked as worthy of charitable consideration. Anna Deroy, for example, asked Santa for a glass eye to replace one that had broken. It was "just awful hard to go to school without it and have the children look at one so." In the 1940 census, Anna is listed as living with her siblings, unable to work, with only a sixth-grade education.

The Chicago Bureau of Charities later admitted that the volume of mail processed in such a short period undoubtedly led to the rejection of some extremely poor children and the inclusion of "families in comfortable circumstances." Fielding complaints from charitable organizations around the country about how the Post Office's Secret Santa program could reward manipulative kids and grifting adults, Postmaster von Meyer canceled the experiment in 1908, a move that Hubbard protested.

Under public pressure, the Post Office reversed its ban on opening Santa letters in 1911. Over the next ten Christmases, Hubbard was in charge of sorting thousands of letters to Kris Kringle, the most desperate of which made their way into the local and national press. Some children in Chicago wrote Santa for coal to heat their homes. Children with disabilities asked for artificial legs and metal braces. "I need a good warm shoe and please give my mother a coat so she can take me out into the air," one letter in 1912 asked. "I had my leg cut off and can't go out alone."

A Polish-language newspaper wrote about  Hubbard, his daughter, and two granddaughters, who helped him sort letters. - DIGITIZATION AND HOSTING BY THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN
  • Digitization and hosting by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • A Polish-language newspaper wrote about Hubbard, his daughter, and two granddaughters, who helped him sort letters.

For Hubbard, the possibility that a truly evil parent might hypothetically slip past an overworked charity to get free gifts was worth the risk. He had seen how truly desperate children had seen their wishes granted. Confronted with the scale of desperation in Chicago, the job of Santa made him feel as if he was "the most insignificant man in the city," Hubbard admitted in 1912. Every Christmas, the Chicago Tribune claimed in 1919, hundreds of children visited the Federal Building to visit Hubbard, who, like Santa, had a snow-white beard and "a big jolly laugh."

After 31 years as assistant postmaster in Chicago, Hubbard retired in August 1920, but he was allowed to stick around as the Official Santa one last year. He estimated that his Christmas department facilitated the distribution of between 6,000 to 7,000 gifts over the years. Nearly seven months after his last day as Santa, Hubbard died in his boyhood home in Saxton's River, Vermont.  v

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