Every year throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as certain as snowflakes fell onto the city streets, a growing mountain of Santa letters ended up at post offices across America. Thanks to a change in Post Office Department policy in 1911, these letters began to be answered by charity groups approved by the local postmaster. But in New York City, the largest city in the country, Santa was nowhere to be found.
“Santa Claus is Tardy Saint,” read the front page of The Sun a week before Christmas Eve. “Mail Men Disown Santa,” read the Tribune. Two years went by with New York City’s Santa letters ending up at the dead letter office [a facility within a postal system where undeliverable mail is dealt with], and as the days of December 1913 ticked away, it began to look like Santa would again be a no-show.
But on 8 December, New York City’s postmaster, Edward M Morgan, received a call about a clever customs broker with a carefully conceived system for receiving, verifying and responding to children’s Christmas wishes. Despite the postmaster’s workload in the midst of the holiday season – or perhaps because he had too much on his mind to take extra time vetting the one man who had stepped forward to play Santa – Morgan quickly granted the man’s request. New York City now had a Santa Claus, the newspapers joyfully reported. However, it would turn out that the city had got more than it bargained for.
The customs broker-turned-Santa was John Duval Gluck, Jr – a bachelor with no children of his own. While Gluck’s imagination and abundant energy added a sense of fancy to his day-to-day life, it also created restlessness in him and a hunger to do something greater with his life. He read about the change in the US Post Office Department policy, and believed his fundraising background – and work investigating customs claims – provided him with the unique skills to effectively manage Santa’s mail.
Gluck’s idea, the Santa Claus Association, worked strictly as a bottom-up operation. New Yorkers of any means could take a letter – or 100 of them if they liked – and personally see that the child received his or her gift. The donors (and the children hopeful enough to write to Santa in the first place), did the real work. Gluck’s association just helped to connect them. From the association’s office in the back of a Manhattan steakhouse, Gluck told reporters that this approach ensured the city’s generosity “is flung wide with a generous hand, rather than doled out with the smugness of self-satisfied benevolence”.
Donors from all walks of life – from poor parents who could barely afford to pay for their own children’s gifts, to business magnates and even businessman William H Vanderbilt (who chipped in $10 to help the group) – contributed to the efforts. Volunteers from the city’s elite societies offered their time to help open, sort and respond to the thousands of letters sent in by the children of New York. A typical missive received by the group in its first year read:
Dear Santa Claus
I am a little girl 11 years old. I have one little brother and three little sisters beside myself. My papa is sick with rheumatism and cannot work. So dear Santa I am writing this letter to you. I hope dear Santa you will not forget us on Christmas.
The efficient, business-centric approach of the Santa Claus Association helped it to answer the requests of 28,000 children in the group’s first year, and earned accolades from the press. “Played Santa Claus and Solved an Economic Problem,” declared the New York Times Magazine, in a typically fawning profile of Gluck. The year the Santa Claus Association was launched was the same year that public Christmas tree celebrations began to catch on, with dozens of cities following New York’s lead. Following the success of the group’s first year, the Santa Claus Association soon became an institution in early 20th-century New York City.
The group’s work continued for another decade-and-a-half, and each year Gluck’s ambitions grew. He started branches of the Santa Claus Association in other cities; tapped celebrities like John Barrymore and Mary Pickford to help promote the cause; and even announced plans for a grand Santa Claus Building to be constructed in the middle of Manhattan.
But as the number of answered letters increased, so did Gluck’s requests for funds. First he asked for a few dollars to cover all the two-cent stamps required. Then he began asking for hundreds of dollars to pay for the gifts. Then hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the construction of the Santa Claus Building.
As the association became a greater part of the holidays in New York City, few people asked questions about where exactly all these funds were going. The patriotic passion of the Great War followed by Jazz Age optimism kept most New Yorkers in an idealistic, trusting mood. And few figures engendered as much trust as Santa Claus.
Eleven years into the group’s operations, the Macy’s department store launched its first eye-popping Christmas Parade; (which would eventually become the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). The Santa Claus Association’s era was the period when Christmas became the extravagant, highly commercial event we celebrate today – and Gluck took full advantage of the public’s growing enthusiasm for the holiday.
But not everyone was so easily excited by Santa Claus. Bird S Coler, New York City’s commissioner of public welfare, made it his mission to clean up Gotham’s unregulated charities. He launched investigations into dozens of charities and shut down street soliciting and benefit block parties [a fundraising party for all the residents of a block or neighbourhood]. By 1927, he had Gluck in his sights.
Coler demanded that Gluck provide him with the Santa Claus Association’s books. The Santa Claus Man resisted, but eventually was compelled to open up his workshop to city auditors. They found tens of thousands of dollars left unaccounted for; a raft of dubious fundraising practices; and no oversight of Gluck or his handling of any of the association’s funds.
Though the lack of documentation made it hard to convict Gluck of a crime, Coler found enough evidence to convince the postal inspector that Gluck could no longer be trusted with children’s wishes. Like the reversal of a Christmas film’s happy ending, the postmen came to the Santa Claus Association’s office and removed Santa’s mail, stripping Gluck of his prized letters.
Though the Santa Claus Man would abscond to Miami soon after, his efforts to answer Santa’s mail have left a legacy of sorts. Santa’s letters have not returned to the dead letter office. Today they are answered by the US Postal Service, as part of its Operation Santa Claus programme. It follows a similar scheme as Gluck devised, in which individuals can request letters and personally answer them with gifts. But now the effort is handled by a whole committee of postal employees, rather than one imaginative customs broker. Playing Santa may just be too much responsibility for one man.
Alex Palmer is the author of The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York (The Lyons Press, 2015). To find out more, click here.
This article was first published on History Extra in December 2017