Youngstown's Arms Museum displays many faces of Santa

By Ashley Luthern


For someone who breaks into houses and sneaks food, Santa Claus gets portrayed in a pretty positive light.

A picture of Santa Claus today usually shows a jolly man dressed in red with a smile on his bearded face and a twinkle in his eye.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In “Memories of Christmas Past,” a new exhibit opening today at the Arms Family Museum of Local History, 648 Wick Ave., visitors can view Santa Claus figurines, decorations and toys, some of which show Santa as a mischievous dwarf or solemn woodsman.

The “Santa Room,” only one of the museum’s seven period room displays, has depictions of Santa that date from the 19th century to the mid-1900s, said Leann Rich, manager of education and external relations at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

On the second floor, visitors can view a collection of holiday Coca-Cola advertisements from the collection of Drs. Angelo and Heather Petrolla.

Haddon Sundblom, the artist responsible for the majority of Coca-Cola’s holiday advertising, has been called the most influential in shaping the modern day vision of Santa Claus, Rich said.

“Everybody loves Coke, and these illustrations are iconic,” she said

Sundblom, a Swedish-American, began illustrating Santa Claus for Coca-Cola in 1931 and continued to do so until 1964.

“[Cartoonist] Thomas Nast is probably the greatest contributor in starting to create the modern Santa Claus, but in codifying it, it was Sundblom. He was a very famous illustrator in the 1930s, in the same league as Norman Rockwell,” said Phil Mooney, archivist and historian at the Coca-Cola Co., which is based in Atlanta.

Mooney said Sundblom “didn’t think Santa was a dwarf or a guy who [gave gifts] because he was required to do it. Santa does it because he wants to bring joy and happiness” — two things in short supply during the Great Depression when Sundblom began the illustrations.

The campaign was started because back then, winter months were not good for soft-drink sales, he said.

“It was to get consumer interest and say, ‘This guy goes all round the world and gets thirsty, so why not have him have a Coke,’” Mooney said.

Sundblom’s image of Santa was consistent and published in widely circulated magazines, helping ingrain it in pop culture, he added.

“People really did pay attention to what went on in the illustrations. One year, Sundblom painted Santa with a wedding ring. The next year, he forgot to do it, and people were wondering whether there was a divorce,” Mooney said.

Sundblom used a friend as a model for Santa, but after the friend died, he used his own mirror illustration.

“In many ways, you actually see the artist in his depictions of Santa,” Mooney said.

The Coca-Cola advertisements — and the entire “Memories of Christmas Past” exhibit — will remain at the Arms Family Museum through Jan. 8.

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