Santa, photographed

“Santa Claus loaded for business” by B.W. Kilburn, 1897. – detail

Some children would do just about anything to catch a glimpse of the gift-giving St. Nick on Christmas Eve – others have parents who would set up a camera and create a stereographic photograph to capture the whole visit. This image, titled “Santa Claus loaded for business” illustrates just such a scene. A bearded and (in this viewer’s eye) slim Santa, replete with drums, dolls and enviable boot cuffs, stands before a heavily decorated Christmas tree looking towards the clock. Here, stockings adorn the mantle and boxes litter the floor. In the image, Santa appears to have no idea that he is being recorded. The 1897 stereocard is by B.W. Kilburn, a commercial photographer from Littleton, New Hampshire; Kilburn both photographed and published the image.

“Santa Claus loaded for business” by B.W. Kilburn, 1897. (Stereocards, Box 316 “S”) – full card

In the tradition of using stereocards as storytelling, this image fills in yet another gap in the visual creation of the man we call Santa by rending him photographically. From the stereograph collection (part of the Graphic Arts collection), the image is one filled with both magic and humor. The image is also fascinating as it recreates someone who proves harder to document than the Loch Ness Monster. Indeed, the Society boasts an impressive amount of Santa-related material, including the Children’s Friend, one of the earliest images of Santa Claus (which was on display at this year’s Grolier show and can now be viewed here; additionally, Case 8 of the show featured several pieces of Santa-ana as well).

An example of one of the stereoscopes in the Society’s collection.

Typically stereocards could show faraway places, paintings, genre scenes, and landscapes, as well as someone who may (or may not depending on which list you’re on…) end up in your living room. (Note: those interested in learning more about the migration of the stereograph to American soil should check out David Jaffee’s Object Lesson in Common-place). In addition to an impressive stereocard collection, the Society also has examples of stereoscopes and viewers.

And while this was a fun-archives-find, we have yet to locate a “Dear Santa” letter to our friend-from-the-North-Pole within the manuscripts collection.

But if we do, you’ll be the first to know.

Published by

Jackie Penny

Imaging Rights Coordinator, American Antiquarian Society

2 thoughts on “Santa, photographed”

  1. You said “Typically stereocards (with their physical viewers the stereopticon).”

    That is incorrect. A stereopticon is a magic lantern projector and has nothing to do with a stereoscope.

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