Clyde Snipes hands a letter Santa Claus in South Carolina on Dec. 24, 1932 Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images

This Is How Letters to Santa Were First Delivered by the U.S. Mail

Dec 21, 2015

Every year thousands of children write letters to Santa Claus to request the presents they want to receive from the fabled North Pole resident, and in the United States those letters are often dropped in a real mailbox. But how did that tradition start?

Some of the earliest Christmas correspondence wasn’t actually written to Santa, but rather from him. In the first half of the 19th Century, Santa Claus was more of a disciplinary figure than the jolly old fellow who sorts "naughty" from "nice" these days. Stories of Saint Nicholas were meant to encourage children to behave, and some parents even wrote letters “from” Santa Claus to their children discussing their conduct over the previous year, mischievous or obedient, per Smithsonian.

The American image of Santa Claus developed throughout the 1800s, from the 1823 publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—now known by its first line, “'Twas the night before Christmas”—to cartoonist Thomas Nast’s Christmas illustrations in the widely read Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s drawings of Santa, which first appeared in Harper’s during the Civil War, helped create the visual references for Santa Claus that are still familiar today, including a red suit and white beard. Nast’s drawings also captured the earliest days of the postal service's involvement in the Christmas workflow.

In 1871 Nast drew Santa Claus at his desk reading his mail and sorting it into two piles. The one labeled “letters from naughty children’s parents” reaches well above his head, whereas “letters from good children’s parents” is a far smaller stack. A few years later, in 1879, Nast created the first known image of someone using the U.S. mail system to write to Santa Claus. In this Harper's illustration, a youthful figure puts a letter addressed to “St. Claus North Pole” in a mailbox on a snowy evening.

By that point, however, the mail system was already being used for letters to Santa. On Boxing Day 1874, for example, the New York Times included an item about letters “deposited in the Richmond Post Office, evidently written by children, plainly indicated that they, anticipating the annual visit of Santa Claus, wished to remind him of what they most desired.” The Times quoted a few letters: one requested “a big wagon—not so very big—four wheels, two packs pop-crackers, a Mother Hubbard book.”

At first, the U.S. Postal Service would consider letters addressed to Santa Claus undeliverable, either returning them to their senders or sending them to the Dead Letter Office. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, philanthropists and charities expressed interest in fulfilling Santa’s role for poor children who sent him letters. “The Post Office Department does not believe in Santa Claus. Officially the dispenser of Christmas cheer for little folks is a myth,” the Times wrote in 1906. “The Christmas season has no charm for the prosaic employees of the Dead Letter Office. It means only a lot of extra work and bother for them.” The article went on to deplore the unsympathetic post office and “red-tape-bound officialdom” for their lack of imagination to find a way to honor the children’s requests.

The following year, the Postmaster General allowed his employees to distribute the letters, but the charitable people and organizations to whom they were given found themselves faced with the task of deciding whether the children were really in need of their assistance. The resulting complaints meant the Postmaster General did not renew the allowance the following year.

His successor wrote an order in 1911 that all letters “addressed plainly and unmistakably to ‘Santa Claus’” could be delivered to “responsible institutions or individuals” to use for “philanthropic purposes.” This time permission was renewed and in 1913 made permanent. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson read out letters from needy children during December shows in the 1960s, helping to popularize the program. In 1989, Santa got his own ZIP Code.

The program continues today, along with a USPS scheme allowing parents to reply to their children's letters to Santa Claus.

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City letter carriers pose with handcarts used to collect and transport mail, 1885.
City letter carriers pose with handcarts used to collect and transport mail, 1885.Smithsonian's National Postal Museum
City letter carriers pose with handcarts used to collect and transport mail, 1885.
City collection mail wagon manufactured by Studebaker Brothers. The wagon was used to collect mail from sidewalk mailboxes in Chicago, Illinois. 1890.
Postal officials encouraged Rural Free Delivery (RFD) carriers to replace their horses and wagons with the latest in transportation technology. This unidentified carrier painted his early electric-motored vehicle in the same paint and identification scheme as the RFD wagons of the era. He is, no doubt, only able to complete his wintertime rounds thanks to a snow-plowed road. Automobiles were not yet adequate replacements for horses, wagons, and sleds on rural roads. 1910.
Three-wheeled mail collection Indian motorcycle in Washington, D.C., on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street. The motorcycle was used only on an experimental basis in DC. 1912.
A letter carrier collecting mail from a sidewalk mail collection box. His mail truck is parked at the curb. 1915.
Postal employees loading mail into a de Havilland mail airplane at Hadley Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Regularly scheduled transcontinental airmail service, which had begun in the summer of 1924, was extended to east coast with the completion of a series of airmail beacons that helped guide pilots across the country. Airmail pilots Dean Smith and James DeWitt Hill carried mail out of Hadley Field on the of July 1, 1925. Smith ran out of gas and crashed outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Hill reached Cleveland with his mail, which was transferred onto airplanes with new pilots for the next part of the transcontinental journey.
Rural carrier Lloyd Mortice created this unusual vehicle for use on his snow-bound New England route. Mortice fitted his 1926 Model-T with a steel track on the rear drive shaft, enabling him to drop either wheels or skis into place in front, depending on weather conditions. The company that sold Mortice the steel track later produced a similar vehicle based on the carrier's idea. 1926.
Officials are gathered to welcome the first Highway Post Office bus in Strasburg, Virginia on February 10, 1941. This bus traveled on a route between Washington, DC and Harrisonburg, Virginia. By the 1930s, a significant decline in railroad passenger traffic had caused a subsequent decline in the use of railway trains. To fill the void, the postal service transferred some en route distribution from trains to highway buses. This is the first Highway Post Office bus and is in the collection of the National Postal Museum. 1941.
A letter carrier drives one of the Department’s new right-hand drive vans on the snowy streets of an unidentified city. The Department ordered thousands of new postal vehicles in the early 1950s as part of its post-war modernization plan. A variety of vehicles were ordered, including right-hand drive step vans such as this. Many of the new vehicles performed adequately, but few of the dozens of different styles ordered were re-ordered in large quantities. 1953.
City letter carrier seated in a three-wheeled "mailster" motor vehicle. Carriers used these vehicles to carry the ever-increasing amounts of mail that was being delivered to American households after end of the Second World War. The mailster worked best in temperate climates or on even terrain. In other areas, they sometimes did not work at all. Northern carriers, immobilized in as little as three inches of snow, also complained of the vehicles' inability to heat properly. The three-wheel design left mailsters susceptible to tipping over if cornering over 25 miles per hour or if caught in a wind gust. One carrier complained that his mailster was tipped over by a large dog.
City letter carriers pose with handcarts used to collect and transport mail, 1885.
Smithsonian's National Postal Museum
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