An Early Christmas Gift: The First Illustrated Edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas

Front wrapper of 1848 edition

Not so long ago I got a phone call from AAS member David Doret (elected 2009), telling me that he had a Christmas book of potential interest. It was what seemed to be the first fully illustrated book-length edition of Clement Clarke Moore’s classic Christmas poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, better known as “The Night before Christmas.” Although Moore’s poem was first published in an 1823 issue of the Troy Sentinel newspaper and had appeared in children’s poetry anthologies, it was not until 1848 that the poem commanded center stage as the subject of its own picture book replete with wood engravings by Theodore C. Boyd. It was published in New York by Henry M. Onderdonk, who issued various publications for the Protestant Episcopal Church and was likely well acquainted with Moore, who was a professor of Divinity at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York. It is a humble square book of sixteen pages, cheaply bound in a paper wrapper emblazoned with the title “Santa Claus.”

The post author with the 1848 edition of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”

I listened to David with great interest. I had been on the prowl for this little book during my entire thirty-year tenure at AAS, and my collecting predecessor, former AAS director Marcus McCorison, had been eagerly searching for it for some decades before that. It was always in the back of my mind as I perused catalogs from book dealers and auction houses, but it was eerily absent. The truth of the matter is that only a handful of copies of the 1848 edition of Visit survive in institutional collections. Even in the 2006 Sotheby’s catalog devoted to Jock Elliott’s Christmas Collection—a collection compiled over half a century by the late chairman emeritus of the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather—the 1848 Onderdonk edition of Visit is nowhere to be found. A copy of the 1823 Troy Sentinel issue containing the famous poem, however, was listed with a starting bid of between ten and twenty thousand dollars; I can only guess what a copy of this little book with its Santa pictures would have fetched, had it been available.

When David told me he would send me the book, I was cautiously optimistic. Over the years I had received various queries from people saying that they had a copy of the original picture book edition, but upon further research, I realized they had copies of a twentieth-century facsimile edition bound with a flamboyant tassel to make it “look” antiquarian. Happily, the copy that David sent us was contemporary to 1848, with its slightly foxed paper stock and tiny stitches made by a former owner mending a tear at the spine, and as of today AAS can count itself among the few institutions to hold a copy of this coveted book.

Self-proclaimed as “a present for good little boys and girls,” it features wood engravings by Theodore C. Boyd celebrating Santa as a scrappy elf shouldering a gift-laden peddler’s pack and smoking a stubby pipe. In Boyd’s hands, Santa operates nimbly through the densely crowded townhouses of Antebellum New York (below); conveyed in its spare black line, this image offers an austere contrast to Thomas Nast’s full-color illustrations of Santa driving through an expansive American countryside, published two decades later by McLoughlin Brothers.

Depictions of St. Nick’s sleigh in 1848 edition (left) and an 1869 edition published by McLoughlin Brothers and illustrated by Thomas Nast (right)

Perhaps most delightful of all the illustrations is the full-length view of Santa; dressed in knee britches and buckled shoes, he looks like a holdover from the eighteenth century. He is a stout man of action, who could effectively wield the stick in his right hand if necessary, but the twinkling eyes of this “right jolly old elf” tell us we indeed have nothing to fear. The famed closing message “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!” is encased in a banner festooned with a medallion of Santa jauntily smoking his pipe, visually branding the ultimate Christmas poem for generations to come.

Thank you, David Doret, for donating one of the best Christmas gifts to AAS in a very long time. It is as though I have been handed the Holy Grail! 

Now if I can only find that long-rumored seventeenth-century copy of the New-England Primer. The chase goes on!

Check out the full book in the gallery below!

5 thoughts on “An Early Christmas Gift: The First Illustrated Edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas

  1. Philip R. Bishop / MOSHER BOOKS

    This is about as lovely and informative a posting I’ve encountered in a long while. Congratulations on your new acquisition / gift to the AAS, and THANK YOU for organizing and portraying this first illustrated edition of A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS in such a lovely, well organized way.

    Reply
    1. Laura Wasowicz

      Dear Mr. Bishop,

      I am really honored to receive such a favorable post. My goal was to give this very significant piece justice while choosing every word carefully, and letting the book speak for itself.

      Laura

      Reply
  2. Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs

    What a wonderful find Laura! A very timely acquisition! This is a perfect example of what makes AAS such a great institution. This blog is such a treat and the digital images are lovely though of course nothing compares to actually working with the objects in the collection. Wishing you continued success and a very Merry Christmas.!

    P.S. I also am looking for a specific and very elusive 18th Century NEP for American History’s collection!

    Reply

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